Books: “Color Blind”

March 27, 2014

Neil Churchill, at the center of the front row, with the 1935 Bismark team.

Neil Churchill, at the center of the front row, with the 1935 Bismark team.

One aspect of my father’s life that I don’t know nearly enough about is the time he spent managing a semi-pro baseball team. He mentioned it now and then, but the only detail I have retained is that his team played a couple of games against a team managed by Johnny Vander Meer. Vander Meer is the only pitcher in the history of major league baseball to pitch no-hitters in two consecutive games. That was in 1938. He also pitched a no-hitter in the Texas League 14 years later.
At the time that my father told me about opposing Vander Meer, I didn’t understand the importance of semi-pro baseball. In fact, I probably didn’t know what the expression meant. In broad terms, there have historically been three categories of baseball leagues: professional, semi-professional, and amateur.The professional leagues are what we know as the major and minor leagues, including the minor leagues whose teams are not affiliated with major league teams. Among the rest, a team is considered semi-pro if even one of its players is paid.

Local newspaper reports that the Bismark team had won the first national semi-pro championship.

Local newspaper reports that the Bismark team had won the first national semi-pro championship.

How many were paid and how they were paid varied a lot from time to time and place to place. There were teams sponsored by companies, by local businesses, by civic and social organizations, by towns, and by private individuals. On some teams, every player was paid. On some only a handful. And in circumstances in which the competition was intense, one or more of the players on a team who were paid were ringers recruited from the minor leagues or the Negro Leagues with offers of bigger salaries than the pros were paying.
There were semi-pro teams all over the United States and Canada, and many of them could draw crowds in those days when the big leagues were concentrated in the eastern part of the country where they were out of reach for most Americans. Semi-pro ball could provide an especially welcome diversion during the epoch in which the plains were beset by both economic depression and drought. One team in particular is the subject of Tom Dunkel’s book, “Color Blind.” The team Dunkel writes about was based in Bismark, North Dakota in the 1930s; it was not a member of a league, but played against teams in nearby and far-off towns and against barnstorming teams that wandered the landscape trying to make a buck. The Bismark team, so far as we know, didn’t have an official nickname although they are often referred to as the Churchills. That’s a nod to Neil Churchill, a partner in a Bismark auto dealership, an habitual if not addicted gambler, and the owner and frequently the manager of the local nine.



Churchill was devoted to the game and he was competitive. He was constantly striking deals with pro players to give the Bismarks an edge over their opponents. Winning was such a priority with him that he didn’t care what color the players were. In fact, because the pro leagues were more than a decade away from coming to their senses, Churchill was able to attract some talented black players, including Satchel Paige. Paige should have spent his career in the majors, but because of the color line and because of his wanderlust, he’d take the field wherever he got the best offer. In 1933 and in 1935, that offer — a $400 a month and a late-model car—came from Churchill , and Paige bolted from the Negro League team in Pittsburgh and made for Bismark. That was no small achievement for Churchill. Although there is no way to establish the widely held belief that Paige was the greatest pitcher of his time, and perhaps of any time, we know enough about him to know that he was extraordinary. In ’35 he started and won four games and relieved in another when Bismark took seven straight to win the inaugural National Baseball Congress tournament in Wichita.



Among the other outstanding black players Churchill recruited were pitcher-catcher Ted “Double Duty” Radcliff, and catcher Quincy Thomas Trouppe (nee Troupe) who, by the way, was the father of prominent poet-journalist-academic Quincy Thomas Troupe Jr.

Churchill led the only integrated organized team in that rough-and-tumble era in baseball, and he got some pushback for his trouble. And Bismark’s black players, of course, had to endure the insults and isolation that the land of “all men are created equal” imposed on many of its citizens then and for more than 30 years after. In his book, Dunkel brings to light a fragment of American history in which the relationship between the people and their national game was much more intimate than it was to become, and by evoking the names of men like Paige and Radcliffe and Trouppe, he reminds us of the crime that was committed for more than six decades against many of its finest practitioners.



It is, indeed, a gift

March 5, 2014

W.C. Fields

W.C. Fields

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have been eavesdropping on Jim Beckerman’s telephone conversation. We were colleagues in newspaper journalism; we worked in a newsroom and we were accustomed to shutting out the phone chatter going on all around us. But every once in a while, a phrase or a clause would penetrate the shield. If a person within earshot were to say, “Was it a homicide?”, for example, we would notice that.

Something like that happened one day when I was standing near Jim’s desk, but he didn’t get my attention by mentioning a homicide or a fire or an FBI raid on yet another mayor’s office in New Jersey. I don’t recall now exactly what he said. It could have been, “Never mind Norman’s skates!” or “I didn’t know oranges were bad for the heart,” or “Mr. Abernathy here has to get his commission.” I don’t know exactly what it was, but I do know that it was a line from the 1939 movie It’s A Gift. 

"I wouldn't ride across the country with that man for a million dollars!"

“I wouldn’t ride across the country with that man for a million dollars!”

In this film, W.C. Fields plays Harold Bissonette (pronounced, his nagging wife, Amelia, insists, “Biss-uh-NAY). Harold is a grocer in the fictional town of Wappingers Falls, New Jersey, but when he unexpectedly inherits some money he sells his corner store and buys an orange ranch in California. His wife, brilliantly played by Kathleen Howard, and his daughter, Mildred, are outraged. Only his hyperactive son, Norman, is enthusiastic about the move. Moreover, Mildred’s boyfriend, John Durston, who sold the orange grove to Harold, knows that the property is worthless but can’t convince Harold of that. After an eventful trip across country, Harold finds that John Durston was correct — at least to the extent that the land won’t support an orange grove — but Harold also learns from a nearby farmer, Mr. Abernathy, that developers need the place to complete a racetrack project. “You’re an old fool,” Amelia tells Harold after learning that the family is going to be rich, “but I can’t help loving you.”

"Do you want me to cut my throat? ... Evidently do."

“If you want me to cut my throat, keep that up. … Evidently do.”

It’s a Gift is regarded by many film critics as one of the funniest movies ever made. We didn’t know that when we became addicted to it at our house. We just knew that we thought it was funny enough to watch again and again, and eventually we began to recite the dialogue. I don’t mean that we repeated certain lines, such as “Yes, Mrs. Casterini, I would love some oatmeal” from Moonstruck or “I’m givin’ you pearls here, son,” from Scent of a Woman. No, I mean that we recited whole speeches, such as Amelia’s rant to her beleaguered husband:

“I don’t know how you expect anybody to get any sleep, hopping in and out of bed all night, tinkering around the house, waiting up for telephone calls. You have absolutely no consideration for anybody but yourself. I have to get UP in the morning, get breakfast for YOU and the children. I have no MAID, you know. Probably never shall have.”

"The public is buying them up like hotcakes!"

“The public is buying them up like hotcakes!”

And we recited scenes, sometimes to the consternation or confusion of others who were waiting for a table at a restaurant or riding on the same ferry in the North Atlantic. One such was a conversation between the Bissonettes’ upstairs neighbor, Mrs. Dunk (Josephine Whittell), and her daughter, Abby (Diana Lewis), who has been dispatched to buy something to settle the stomach of Baby Dunk. Harold, escaping from Amelia’s nagging, is trying to sleep on the back porch of his second-floor apartment. Mrs. Dunk is on the porch above him, and Abby is already in the back yard:

Mrs. Dunk: Don’t forget the ipecac!
Abby: I thought you said syrup of squill.
Mrs. Dunk: I can’t hear you, talk louder!
Abby: I thought you said syrup of squill.
Mrs. Dunk: All right, syrup of squill. I don’t care.
Abby: I don’t care either. I’ll get ipecac if you want me to.
Mrs. Dunk: Well, ipecac or syrup of squill. I don’t care which.
Abby: I don’t care either. You tell me what to get and I’ll get it.
Mrs. Dunk: Get whichever one you want. I don’t care. Whatever they have handy. It’s just the same to me.
Abby: It’s just the same to me, too. I hate ’em both. Oh, where will I go? To Jones’s?
Mrs. Dunk: Use your own judgment.
Abby: No, you tell me where to go.
Harold (muttering): I’d like tell both of you where to go.

Enter Amelia, who overhears this dialogue and comes out onto the porch:

Amelia: Who were those women you were talking to?
Harold: Mrs. Dunk upstairs.
Amelia: Seems to me you’re getting pretty familiar with Mrs. Dunk — upstairs!
Harold: They were talking to me, I wasn’t talking to them.

"Just a little glassware."

“Just a little glassware.”

It wasn’t until I overheard Jim’s end of a telephone conversation that I realized that my family and I weren’t the only ones who at will could perform large chunks of dialogue from It’s a Gift. Recently I have seen several strings on Facebook in which one user  posted a line from the film and a stream of “friends” immediately started chiming in with others.

Why is this true? One reason may be that this script wasn’t turned out by a team of college-educated writers who were handed a premise and ordered to be funny within the limitations of the budget. This was the combined work of Fields himself, who had been seasoned by years on the stage, J.P. McEvoy, a veteran magazine writer,  and Jack Cunningham, who had been writing screenplays since 1917. McEvoy, by the way, created the newspaper comic strip Dixie Dugan, which ran from 1929 to 1966.

It’s probably because of the combined experience of these men that there is scarcely a line  or exchange in It’s a Gift that isn’t funny. The script is hard to match on that account, and the fact that it was assigned to a brilliantly wackadoodle cast of characters completes the package.

One of the most famous scenes from this movie involves a salesman who is pitching annuity policies. This character was played by T. Roy Barnes (pictured above in the gray fedora), who died at the age of 56 less than three years after It’s a Gift was released but achieved film immortality with his search for a potential client, Carl LaFong. The salesman’s conversation with Harold takes place during the “porch scene,” and you can see that whole sequence at THIS LINK.



I had a phone conversation with Sally Struthers a few years ago when she was touring with a production of Annie.The fact that she was touring with that show was a reflection of an experience that she and may other actors have had: she appeared in a hit television series and never quite matched that in her later career. It’s no disgrace; it has happened to many others through no fault of theirs. It’s just the nature of the television industry.

Sally Struthers certainly isn’t absent from television because she isn’t a good actress.We were reminded of that the other night when we watched a 1979 Hallmark movie, And Your Name is Jonah, in which she plays a woman whose deaf son has been misdiagnosed as mentally handicapped.When the mistake is discovered the boy is released from the institution he has been living in. But his dad, although he tries, cannot understand the boy’s needs, and the marriage is strained to the breaking point.



Sally Struthers gave a strong performance as a loving mother who will not be diverted from her mission to help her son live as a member of the community. Jonah was played with great effect by nine-year-old Jeffrey Bravin, who was the fourth generation of his family to be born deaf. He is now an administrator at the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford, Connecticut. He and his wife have two children who, I believe, are hearing. Titos Vandis is a sympathetic figure as Jonah’s grandfather, who sells produce in an open-air market.

Jonah - 5

This movie touches on sensitive issues related to deafness, including the question of whether deaf people should rely on sign language or learn to lip read and speak. I was ignorant of that issue until I read Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf, which was published in 1989 by the neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks. This movie also treats the overarching theme of the need and right of deaf people to be treated not as pitiable victims but as the whole human beings they are.

Jonah - 4