Monthly Archives: January 2015

Ernie Banks, “Mr. Cub,” willed himself to be happy

http://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/ernie-banks-mr-cub-willed-himself-to-be-happy/2015/01/24/f2a56c34-a40a-11e4-b146-577832eafcb4_story.html

Ernie Banks, “Mr. Cub,” willed himself to be happy

By Thomas Boswell January 24

When we are sifting for childhood heroes, we look for what we lack. Even though I grew up in the District, I looked all the way to Chicago to find Ernie Banks. Then I didn’t let him go.

The late-1950s were full of major sports heroes. I could have found something that appealed deeply to me in Johnny Unitas, Arnold Palmer or Willie Mays. I certainly read enough profiles of all of them and other stars in every sports magazine. There were local D.C. heroes, like home run champion Roy Sievers, whom I fell for hard as a kid. But with all the rest of sports to choose from, I picked Banks and followed his last 15 seasons avidly.

By 1969, after I graduated from college, Ernie was the last childhood hero I still rooted for every day. In September, as his Cubs battled America’s darling, the Miracle Mets, I clung to Banks, then 38, as he staggered toward his only chance to play in a World Series. When the Cubs failed, I took a lesson from their fall, supplied by Banks, that has never left me.

If you want a defining trait, one that survives defeat, attracts affection from others and mysteriously restores itself, then it’s hard to beat enthusiasm.

“It’s a great day for a ballgame. Let’s play two” isn’t just a quotation that will probably end up in Bartlett’s. It’s philosophy.

Believe me, as someone who has covered baseball for nearly 40 years at The Washington Post, nobody wants to play 324 games, not even Ernie. “Let’s play two” is a worldview and a deep one, not a quip.

The outward joy Banks professed, even if it was partly innate to his temperament, was also a daily act of will: a lifelong private commitment to enthusiasm as a guiding principle.

For countless people, including me, it’s hard to find anybody among family or friends who’s a living example of that combination of attitude and energy. When you find a Banks, who sticks to those guns all his life, that’s the definition of a role model.

“He who would be calm must first put on the appearance of calm,” Shakespeare wrote. In other words, our emotions do not simply come from inside us and express themselves outwardly. The process can work in reverse. By putting on the outward appearance of calm — or confidence or enthusiasm or whatever quality we value — we can increase our tendency to feel that way.

Every day for 19 seasons, Banks put on that appearance of joy, convinced himself and probably some teammates that they were “playing” ball, not so much competing as publicly scrutinized pros.

So how did that sensibility stand up to The Collapse — the epitome of the sport as pain, not play?

When the Cubs crashed in September, losing 11 of 12 to go from five games ahead to 4 1/2 behind, it all happened so fast that it seemed more grotesque than dramatic and, by the end, darkly comic. Banks slumped, too. But after seven straight losses, he made a personal stand. Against the Phillies he drove in a run in the first inning, then homered in the eighth to give the Cubs a 2-1 lead; they blew it, of course. The next day, in the only Cubs win of the whole smashup, Banks drove in four of their five runs. That was the old man’s statement — not nearly enough but something.

On the final day of the season, when manager Leo Durocher, the grouch who said “Nice guys finish last,” was disengaged from his team and stuck with the disgrace of his defeat, Banks was still showing up — just to play baseball. On the season’s last day, Banks, the oldest man in the lineup, played his 155th game of the year and had a triple, homer and drove in three runs to finish the season with 106 RBI, a total he hadn’t topped since his 20s.

You need all kinds of role models as you grow up. That 1969 Cubs’ choke sealed it for me — Banks would remain one of mine. No team could fail worse. Mostly, Banks stunk, too. But I didn’t respect him any less. And nobody else seemed to either.

By 1977, Ernie had been voted into the Hall of Fame. Durocher got in by the backdoor of the Old Timers Committee in 1994 — three years after he died. Banks has been going to Cooperstown every August for a third of a century, enjoying the chatter with his fellow immortals. Leo never got to sit on the veranda of the Otesaga Hotel overlooking Lake Glimmerglass and preen. Let’s play two or nice guys finish last? Excuse me, but I call it a parable.

In a baseball sense, Banks is an immortal because he averaged 41 homers and 115 RBI a year as a shortstop from 1955 to 1960, making himself the equal of Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle or anybody else in the game for those half-dozen years.

There had never before been a middle infielder with such power. And to this day, there still hasn’t. Banks won a gold glove, too. Switching to first base and remaining a solid hitter until he had amassed 512 homers assured him a place in the Hall.

But it is the Other Banks, the man who exemplified an entire stance toward how we approach life, who will be remembered long after most of baseball’s 500-home run men are forgotten.

Perhaps fans of the 1950s, when Banks emerged, were particularly susceptible to what he embodied. From 1929 through the early 1950s, the whole country — and especially the Greatest Generation — endured a unique sequence of traumas from the Depression to World War II to McCarthyism.

The virtues that were required to survive those times were admirable but perhaps tended toward a narrow spectrum. My friends and I seemed to come from families who had all walked 20 miles to school, uphill both ways. My grandfather, a small town farmer who almost went broke in the 1930s, worked dawn to dusk. I saw him grab a snake out of a ditch, crack it like a whip and throw it back dead. My father, an Army sergeant, was in the Normandy invasion but never talked about it. Another relative, who started a union, was accused of being un-American and blackballed.

These days, it almost seems quaint to make a list of taken-for-granted American traits back then: determination, the need for rigorous education, delayed gratification and even stoicism. But Banks added something different and exciting for many of us.

Arriving in the big leagues just seven years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line, no sensible fan thought Banks had come up easy. He had even played in the Negro Leagues.

Everyone assumed that, even if Banks’s temperament tended toward cheerfulness, there was something else at work. Ernie made himself want to “play two,” even on days when he undoubtedly didn’t. And yet that habit of enthusiasm, that determination to focus on the love of the game for its own sake, seemed to become a reinforcing principle for him. The more he repeated it, lived it, the more it became true.

In short, maybe you could make yourself be happy.

All Banks’s fans will have their own affectionate version of Ernie. I imagine Banks on a hot August afternoon in Wrigley Field when the ivy vines are drooping and the Cubs flag in center field is near the bottom of the pole. He says, for the millionth time, “It’s a beautiful day for a ballgame. Let’s play two.”

A few eyes roll. But the hint has been dropped, the seed planted once more, that the focus of the day actually is baseball, the game they love. “Ernie must be nuts,” the Cubs think. “But, hell, I guess I would like to play one.”

So they do.

For more by Thomas Boswell, see washingtonpost.com/boswell.

This article previously appeared as the foreword to “Ernie Banks: Mr. Cub and the Summer of ’69” by Phil Rogers (Triumph Books, 2011)

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist.

Bill Moyers on LBJ and ‘Selma’

Bill Moyers on LBJ and ‘Selma’

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After his online chat Tuesday, Bill had more to say about the Oscar-nominated film Selma, President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Voting Rights Act and how government has changed over the past 40-plus years. Read his Q & A below, and be sure to add your comments — as Bill said in the chat, he reads them all.

What did you think of the film Selma?

(Poster of 'Selma' the movie.)

Bill: There are some beautiful and poignant moments in the film that take us closer to the truth than anything I’ve seen in other movies to date: the cruelty visited upon black people everyday by whites and armed authorities; the humiliation they faced simply trying to register to vote (“Name all the county judges in Alabama!”); the courage and fear of those black people who put themselves on the line for freedom’s sake; the ambivalence in Martin Luther King Jr. as he faced the inescapability of leadership and constant threat of death. I cannot imagine the dread one had to subdue to step on that bridge that day.And I came out of the theater shaking my head in disbelief at the obscenity of the Republican Party as it has piously but insidiously taken up voter suppression as a priority. The Party of Lincoln? Of Emancipation? Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” of 50 years ago has now become their subliminal mantra: “Whites of America, Unite!” Back in the 1970s, in the early days of a resurging conservative movement, the late Paul Weyrich — godfather of the religious right and co-founder of the American Conservative Union, and of ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council, the powerful lobbying group for corporations and conservatives) – declared:

I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of the country, and they are not now. As a matter of fact our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.

So look who won the midterm elections as voter turnout fell to its lowest in 70 years: A coalition of suppressionists doing everything they can to make it hard for black and poor people to vote – and their big donors who give millions to drown out those very same voices. That’s “Free Speech” in the Roberts era.

As for how the film portrays Lyndon B. Johnson: There’s one egregious and outrageous portrayal that is the worst kind of creative license because it suggests the very opposite of the truth, in this case, that the president was behind J. Edgar Hoover’s sending the “sex tape” to Coretta King. Some of our most scrupulous historians have denounced that one. And even if you want to think of Lyndon B. Johnson as vile enough to want to do that, he was way too smart to hand Hoover the means of blackmailing him.

Then, casting the president as opposed to the Selma march, which the film does, is an exaggeration and misleading. He was concerned that coming less than a year after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there was little political will in Congress to deal with voting rights. As he said to Martin Luther King Jr., “You’re an activist; I’m a politician,” and politicians read the tide of events better than most of us read the hands on our watch. The president knew he needed public sentiment to gather momentum before he could introduce and quickly pass a voting rights bill. So he asked King to give him more time to bring Southern “moderates” and the rest of the country over to the cause, but once King made the case that blacks had waited too long for too little, Johnson told him: “Then go out there and make it possible for me to do the right thing.”

I was standing very near him, off to his right, and he was more emotionally and bodily into that speech than I had seen him in months. The nation was electrified. Watching on television, Martin Luther King Jr. wept. This is the moment when the film blows the possibility for true drama — of history happening right before our eyes.

To my knowledge he never suggested Selma as the venue for a march but he’s on record as urging King to do something to arouse the sleeping white conscience, and when violence met the marchers on that bridge, he knew the moment had come: He told me to alert the speechwriters to get ready and within days he made his own famous “We Shall Overcome” address that transformed the political environment. Here the film is very disappointing. The director has a limpid president speaking in the Senate chamber to a normal number of senators as if it were a “ho hum” event. In fact, he made that speech where State of the Union addressesare delivered – in a packed House of Representatives. I was standing very near him, off to his right, and he was more emotionally and bodily into that speech than I had seen him in months. The nationwas electrified. Watching on television, Martin Luther King Jr. wept. This is the moment when the film blows the possibility for true drama — of history happening right before our eyes.So it’s a powerful but flawed film. Go see it, though – it’s good to be reminded of a time when courage on the street is met by a moral response from power.

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Martin Luther King, Jr. on Aug. 6, 1965 upon signing the Voting Rights Act. Credit: Yoichi R. Okamoto, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum

You were involved in passing the Voting Rights Act? How do you assess its impact all these years later?

Bill: Just as Lyndon B. Johnson said at the time, the right to vote is “the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.” We’re a different country today because of what happened then, obviously — with black Americans holding office all the way up to the president of the United States. After he signed the Voting Rights Act I asked LBJ if he thought this meant we’d have a black president in our time. He said no, we would have a woman first. Well, one down, another to go.

On the other hand, the reactionaries never give up. And the George Wallace of then would be pleased with the John Roberts of now. You may know the chief justice was a young lawyer in Ronald Reagan’s Department of Justice during the 1980s and doing everything he could to undermine the effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act. Roberts’ great conceit – shared by other conservative members of the court, including Clarence Thomas who keeps trying to kick over the ladder by which he himself was hoisted to prominence — is that racism is no longer the problem it once was. More or less what you can imagine a privileged elite of corporate lawyers would think, no? Read some of the memos and op-eds the younger Roberts wrote arguing for watering down the Voting Rights Act and you will understand why the conservative movement saw him as their new white hope on the bench. He seems to believe discrimination has to be intentional to be unconstitutional – that there’s no such thing as systemic racism, racism layered over decades or centuries. So we have now a one-time foot soldier in the conservative movement of legal resistance to equal rights occupying its commanding heights.

How do you remember LBJ? 

Bill Moyers with President Lyndon Johnson.

(Note: Bill served as Lyndon B. Johnson’s domestic policy adviser in 1964-65 and his press secretary from 1965 to 1967.)Bill: Lyndon B. Johnson owned and operated a ferocious ego. But he was curiously ill at ease with himself. He had an animal sense of weakness in other men — he wanted to know what you loved and what you feared and once he knew, he came after you. He was at times proud, sensitive, impulsive, flamboyant, sentimental, bold, magnanimous and graceful (the best dancer in the White House since George Washington); at times temperamental, paranoid, ill of spirit, vulgar. He had a passion for power but suffered violent dissent in the ranks of his own personality.

He could absolutely do the right thing at the right time — the reassuring grace, if you will, when he was thrust into the White House after Kennedy’s assassination; the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But when he did the wrong thing — escalating the Vietnam war — the damage was irreparable.

How would you describe the most striking and significant differences in our government that you have observed between the Vietnam era and today?

Bill: First, the sheer size and complexity of government — check out a recent post on billmoyers.com by John J. Dilulio Jr. reviewing Francis Fukuyama’s new book on the state of democracy; the two of them — Dilulio and Fukuyama — make this point brilliantly. I also just read a thoughtful piece by Charles Lane in the Washington Post arguing that the Great Society programs minted 50 years ago have mutated into sources of new and intractable problems, including their enormous cost; you can’t ignore the argument even as you also acknowledge how the giant tax cuts to the rich have cut government revenues that would help pay that cost. Everybody’s clamoring for more spending on infrastructure but hardly anyone is saying “Let’s raise the gasoline tax to pay for what all of us need and use!”

Second, the growth of the deep state — private instruments or agencies of power acting for and funded by the government (intelligence, the military, etc.). There’s a vast government we don’t see. A long-time senior Republican staff member of Congress, Mike Lofgren, wrote an extraordinary essay for billmoyers.com under the title The Deep State. Read it before you go to bed tonight. Rather, first thing in the morning. If you tackle it before bedtime, you won’t sleep.

And finally — although I should have started with this one: The triumph of money over every aspect of government. Money’s always been a force, but never to the extent it is today. We are just this close (I’m squeezing my index finger and thumb tightly) from oligarchy — the rule of the wealthy few for the purpose of increasing their wealth.

ROBERT STONE 1937-2015

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ROBERT STONE 1937-2015 
Novelist’s tales delved into drugs, violence and strife 
By Emily Langer The Washington Post 

   Robert Stone, who was regarded as one of the foremost American novelists to emerge from the tumult of the Vietnam War and the counterculture, an era whose agonies and legacies he captured in bracing narratives, died Saturday, Jan. 10, at his home in Key West, Fla. He was 77.    The cause was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, said his wife, Janice Stone.    Mr. Stone was widely regarded as one of the most significant novelists of his generation. He often was compared to Joseph Conrad, with whom he shared a dark awareness of moral fragility, and to Ernest Hemingway, another chronicler of people adrift in an unforgiving world.    His novels, among them “Dog Soldiers,” the winner of the 1975 National Book Award for fiction, were the products of a lifetime of geographic and intellectual wandering. Mr. Stone spent periods in the Navy, as a foreign correspondent in Vietnam, and with author and counterculture figure Ken Kesey.    In his novels, Mr. Stone took readers into the underworld of drugs, violence and strife, both cultural and personal. His characters were sometimes strung out, often morally ambiguous and, above all, real.    His first novel, “A Hall of Mirrors,” was set in the maelstrom of New Orleans, where Mr. Stone had lived for a time, writing and performing his poetry and taking stock of its inhabitants as a census worker in 1960. Its central characters included a dissolute right-wing radio broadcaster and other misfits who head inexorably toward ruin.    “The American Way is innocence,” the broadcaster declares in a pivotal moment in the book. “In all situations we must and shall display an innocence so vast and awesome that the entire world will be reduced by it. American innocence shall rise in mighty clouds of vapor to the scent of heaven and confound the nations!”    After his debut novel, Mr. Stone reported briefly in Vietnam for a British publication. That experience, along with his observations of cultural turmoil at home, resulted in “Dog Soldiers.”    The book featured a journalist who conspires with a former Marine to smuggle heroin from Vietnam to the United States. Eventually, they are intercepted by corrupt federal agents. It was noted that Mr. Stone had created a fictional world not unlike the real one, where the good characters seemed indistinguishable from the bad.    Mr. Stone continued writing until very nearly the end of his life.    Mr. Stone’s final novel, published in 2013, was “Death of the Black-Haired Girl,” a psychological thriller that derived its drama not from violence in far-flung international engagements, but from an affair and a mysterious death in a small New England community.    Robert Anthony Stone was born Aug. 21, 1937, in Brooklyn, N.Y. He was an infant when his father left him and his mother, who had schizophrenia.    Mr. Stone’s survivors include his wife of 55 years, the former Janice Burr; their two children, Ian Stone and Deidre Stone Jones; a daughter from another relationship, Emily Burton; and six grandchildren. 

BEBETO MATTHEWS/AP 2013    The novels of Robert Stone were the products of a lifetime of geographic and intellectual wandering.