Taylor Teagarden’s major league baseball career hasn’t amounted to much yet. As of yesterday, he had appeared in only 136 games in five seasons. He has shown a flair for the dramatic on a few occasions—last night being a notable example—but he hasn’t yet become the Jack Teagarden of the diamond.

Jack was another story altogether. As soon as I heard of Taylor T., I wondered if he and Jack were related. Naturally a guy would wonder that, what with the unusual last name and the fact that both of these Teagardens were from Texas.

Well, I say “naturally.” It was natural for me, because of a 78 rpm record that belonged to my parents. I loved that record when I was a kid, and I still do. It’s a rendition of a 1941 Johnny Mercer song, “The Waiter, the Porter, and the Upstairs Maid,” sung by Bing Crosby, Mary Martin, and Jack Teagarden. It’s one of those witty, sophisticated lyrics that Mercer wrote best. You can hear and see that trio singing Mercer’s song at this site: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_0e1DF4TUYY. Or you can come over Saturday afternoon, and I’ll play it for you on the Victrola. If you don’t know what a Victrola is, you probably already stopped reading.


Jack Teagarden, who came from a family loaded with musical talent, was in heady company with Crosby and Martin, and he was a very good crooner himself, as well as a composer and bandleader. Among the highlights of his memorable career were his vocal turns with Mercer and Louis Armstrong. But he made his most indelible mark as an innovative jazz and blues trombonist. He is often referred to as “the father of jazz trombone.” You can learn a lot about this important figure in American cultural history at www.jackteagarden.info.

Although it’s a lot easier than it was in the pre-digital age to answer such questions as, “Is Taylor Teagarden related to Jack?”, I have had trouble finding out. Until I wrote this post, I had found only one reference, buried in an non-authoritative web site, reporting that the catcher thinks he might be the great great nephew of the musical genius. But my friend Brian VanderBeek, a sports writer with the Modesto Bee, responded to this post by reporting that he had met Taylor Teagarden in 2007 when Taylor was playing for Bakersfield in the California League and Taylor, on that occasion, confirmed that Jack Teagarden was his dad’s great uncle.

Taylor is  with the Orioles now, and his season got a late start due to a back injury. It remains to be seen if he will leave in baseball a footprint like the one Jack Teagarden left in music, but Taylor  has already taken advantage of baseball’s unique capacity for providing even the most obscure player with opportunities for heroics.


He came up with the Texas Rangers in 2008, and his first major league hit was a sixth-inning home run off Scott Baker of the Minnesota Twins. Baker had not given up a hit up to that point. And Teagarden’s homer produced the only run in what turned out to be a 1-0 game. When he came off the disabled list for the Orioles on July 14 of this year, he hit a two-run homer that broke up a 6-6, 13-inning tie with the Tigers.

Last night, Taylor got to play Mr. Clutch again as he pinch hit a single in the top of the 18th inning, driving in the winning run as the Orioles beat the Seattle Mariners and pulled into a virtual tie with the Yankees for first place in the American League East. No matter how the rest of his career goes, Taylor T. can always say with another lyricist, Ira Gershwin, “They can’t take that away from me.”


Henri Verneuil created a moving reflection on family ties and cultural roots in his 1992 film, the partly autobiographical 588 rue paradis. The French-language film, which Verneuil wrote and directed, concerns playwright Pierre Zakar (Richard Berry), who has been influenced by his socially ambitious wife Carole (Diane Bellego) to change his name from the Armenian Azad Zakarian,  distance himself from his working-class background, and keep his  parents at arm’s length. Carole is particularly determined that the couple’s two children not be influenced by their Armenian heritage.

 As the film opens, Pierre is anticipating the Paris opening of one of his plays, and he has invited his father, Hagop (Omar Sharif), to attend. Carole arranges for the elderly man, who for decades has worked along with his wife and other family members as a shirtmaker, to stay in a ridiculously large suite in a sumptuous hotel — and not in his son’s home.


Pierre lets Carole know that he doesn’t approve of this arrangement, but he doesn’t insist on changing it. Instead, he spends as much time with his father as possible, making excuses for Carole, who has deliberately sent the children off on a trip so that they won’t see and be contaminated by their grandfather.

Throughout this period, the inscrutable Pierre entertains memories of his childhood, some more pleasant than others, but especially of his mother, Araxi (Claudia Cardinale), whom he calls “mayrig,” an affectionate Armenian term for mother. He  also meets a young Armenian woman whose humility and earnestness contrast sharply with Carole’s personality.


While Hagop is still in Paris, an unexpected magazine article about the Zakarian family appears, and Carole uses the occasion to goad Pierre into reprimanding his father, something Pierre will forever regret. This incident and its aftermath is the stimulus for a long delayed confrontation between Pierre and Carole and for a decision by Pierre about taking control of his own life.


Even with Omar Sharif and Claudia Cardinale as worthy distractions, Berry is irresistible in this part. His cool exterior in contrast to the turmoil inside him effectively creates the dramatic tension that underlies this domestic story. This is Henri Verneuil’s second film about the Zakarian family; the first, in which Sharif and Cardinale played these same roles, was Mayrig in 1991.


When I attended elementary and high school (that was between 1947 and 1960) history was taught as though its only dynamic was a westward movement from Europe to the Pacific Coast of North America. One result of this skewed point of view was that Islam was mentioned only with respect to the Crusades.

In actual fact, however, the history of Islam is an integral part of the history of the whole world; in particular, it was an important factor in shaping the western world we know today.

Benson Bobrick takes on a part of that subject in his popular history “The Caliph’s Splendor,” focusing especially on the ninth and tenth centuries. His topic is an institution that is virtually unknown to westerners—the caliphate. This was the structure under which most of Islam was governed for generations following the death of the Prophet Muhammad.


Islam was divided on the subject of who should succeed the Prophet as the administrative and political leader. The role fell first to Muhammad’s father-in-law and confidant, Abu Bakr as-Saddiq, who was supported by the Sunni. Abu Bakr was the first caliph (successor), a position he held only a few years until his death. In the centuries following his death, Islam spread through the Near East, North Africa, and Europe. Because of the difference of opinion about succession, and because of geopolitical realities, not one but several caliphs ruled over Muslim territories.

The focal point of Bobrick’s book is Caliph Harun al-Rashid, the fabled “Sword of God,” who ruled over a territory that spread from Spain across southern Europe and North Africa through the Middle East and Arabia to the western edges of  China. Most modern westerners who may be at least vaguely aware of the  later Ottoman Empire are unaware of the extent to which Islam spread from its beginnings in what is now Saudi Arabia. Nor are many aware of the level of wealth that the caliphs accumulated. In 766, Harun, who was a caliph of the Abbasid dynasty, established his capital at Baghdad, which became one of the most influential cities of  its time.


Bobrick writes that the administration of Baghdad “managed to harness the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for the cultivation of grain, and a brilliant system of canals, dikes, and reservoirs drained the surrounding swamps…. There were many rich bazaars and covered shops along the embankments, where all sorts of artisans and craftsmen—marble workers from Antioch, papyrus makers from Cairo, potters from Basra, calligraphers from Peking—plied their trades. … There was a large sanitation department, many fountains and public baths, and, unlike the European towns and cities of the day, streets that were regularly washed free of refuse and swept clean. Most households had water supplied by aqueducts. …”

By comparison, Bobrick writes, London and Paris during that same era were pest holes.


As with the expansion of all empires, of course, the spread of Islam was accomplished in part by brute and bloody force, it was also accompanied at times by significant advances in learning, literature, and scientific discovery in areas such as mathematics and astronomy. The “intellectual awakening” that took place during the reigns of Hasrun and his son Mamun—and with their participation—was, Bobrick writes, “one of the most significant in the whole history of culture and thought.”

As much as it might fit some political agendas to believe that Islam arose and grew in a primitive desert context, nothing could be farther from the truth. It is well established, in fact, that a large body of western learning, including the works of such geniuses as Aristotle and Plato, would have been lost forever during the Dark Ages had they not been translated by Muslim scribes and preserved in Muslim libraries until they could be rediscovered by European scholars of a later period. Bobrick wrote this book for popular audience, and a popular audience might understand modern history a little better by learning more about such epochs as the “golden age of Baghdad.”