Great Baseball Nicknames

Now that another ho-hum football season has passed, Spring Training is imminent as thoughts turn to mitts-a-poppin’ when pitchers and catchers report next week.  Last year MLB brought back the concept of nicknames on jerseys for “Players’ Weekend” in August, highlighted by a Mets-Phillies game in conjunction with the Little League World Series in Williamsport.    This year’s game will feature a Pirates-Cubs Sunday night matchup, August 18 on ESPN as the 2019 MLB Little League Classic.

Phillies Nickname Jerseys

The Phillies nicknames were comparatively lame, with Rhys Hoskins as “Big Fella”, Aaron Nola as “Nols”, and Jake Arrieta as “Snake”.  I say “comparatively” because none of the current names can hold a candle to my favorite nicknamed ball player as a kid, the Phillie’s own Willie “Puddin Head” Jones of 1950s fame.

Most baseball nicknames make obvious sense.  Clarence “Choo-Choo” Coleman was a catcher selected by the Phillies in the Rule V draft from the Dodgers in 1961.  Clarence was always known as Choo Choo and signed his cards that way, a moniker he acquired due to his surprising speed.

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When the Mets selected him from the Phillies in the expansion draft that formed their team in 1962, Clarence formally became Choo Choo.

Choo Choo Coleman Mets

Another speedy ex-Phillie with a two pronged nickname that the 1962 Mets featured was Richie Ashburn, dubbed “Putt Putt” by no less than Ted Williams who quipped that Ashburn ran as if he had an outboard motor in the seat of his pants.  But my favorite remains Puddin Head, Ashburn’s teammate on the 1950 Whiz Kids, whose nickname was enshrined on the back of his 1949 Bowman baseball card.

puddin Bowman

Puddin Head seems to be a pejorative stemming from Southern literature, and popularized by Twain.  But the origin of Willie’s odd nickname is ensconced in mystery.  Some say that Willie was neither swift of foot nor intellect, despite having soft hands at third base, a canon of an arm, and thunder in his bat.  Others claim that it was more of an innocent nickname, stemming from the popular 1930s song featuring Woodenhead, Puddin Head Jones.  Here are the lyrics:

There was a most peculiar kid in our town
Was always late for school
He never learned to tell a verb from a noun
And always broke the rules
Though they looked upon him as a clown
Yet he wasn’t such a fool

Oh, Puddin’ head Jones was fat and funny
Dumber than sticks and stones
Now that is just why the kids all called him
Woodenhead, Puddin’ Head Jones

He couldn’t spell Constantinople
Didn’t know beans from bones
All those pencils and books, they were never made for
Woodenhead, Puddin’ Head Jones

Teacher told his mother she would take him right in hand
And teach him a thing or two
Like his older brother he began to understand
He learned everything that she ever knew

All of the kids to the teacher carried
Candy and ice cream cones
But who do you think the teacher married
Woodenhead, Puddin’ Head Jones

After he got married, he went out and got a job
And kept at it night and day
Money stuck to him as close as corn upon the cob
He never spent it in a cabaret

Stock market crashed, then came depression
Bankers cut down their loans
But who do you think had all the money
Woodenhead, Puddin’ Head
Woodenhead, Puddin’ Head Jones

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During his playing days the Phillies’ Puddin Head lived in Broomall, PA, and supplemented his income in the off season by selling Christmas trees.  The seasons turn with increasing frequency these days, and as the van loads baseball gear in Philly this week for the trip down to Clearwater, young boys in old bodies will be reminded of what makes spring a time of renewal.

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Holocaust Remembrance Day

Today, January 27, is Holocaust Remembrance Day.  In contrast with Yom Hashoah, commemorated on the 27th day of the month of Nisan to recall the horrors targeting Jews specifically, Holocaust Remembrance Day recalls the mosaic of victims whose fate was sealed by Nazism.

Remembrance takes many forms.  As Anna Ornstein, a holocaust survivor born in Hungary in 1927 notes in the poignant film above: “There are many other ways in which the memory of this event will become transformed.  The same way as every other important historical event.  Some will be in archives.  Some will be fictionalized.  Some will be made into films, into plays.  We will die, and our voices will die.  But the art and the books will survive.”

Among the surviving art and books about the Holocaust, few are more widely known than those authored by Primo Levi.  In my personal effort to delve deeper into the lessons of the Holocaust, I’m revisiting his Complete Works edited by Ann Goldstein.

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In her introduction to these volumes, Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison writes: “The Complete Works of Primo Levi is far more than a welcome opportunity to reevaluate and reexamine historical and contemporary plagues of systematic necrology; it becomes a brilliant deconstruction of malign forces.  The triumph of human identity and worth over the pathology of human destruction glows virtually everywhere in Levi’s writing.  For a number of reasons his works are singular amid the wealth of Holocaust literature.”

Among the many who have been informed by Levi’s works is Allen Hershkowitz, Ph.D., an environmental scientist who wrote a stirring tribute to his father’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor.   Dr. Hershkowitz will be participating in an ecumenical event this afternoon at 3:00 at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture which will be available through live streaming.

Perhaps the best way to encapsulate the significance of today is contained in the introduction to a research article in Science Advances recently shared with me by a close friend:

“The Holocaust, the Nazi-German annihilation of European Jewry during World War II (1939–1945), is unarguably one of the most destructive and murderous events in the history of human civilization. However, over the last 70 years, genocides and mass killing events have continued to occur and they are not diminishing in frequency. Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, Burundi, Syria, and Myanmar have all experienced large-scale murder operations in the last 25 years, some of which may have been preventable. Developing a deeper understanding of genocides and mass killing events, including their causes, common characteristics, predictability, and mitigation, is thus considered by some as ‘the most important goal of social science’. In this respect, lessons learned from the Holocaust continue to play a vital role, and the topic remains as timely as ever.”

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Wrapping Up a Florida Interlude

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Maria Popova on Mary Oliver

It’s been a couple of years since I wrote about Maria Popova and her Brain Pickings blog.

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From her archives, Maria shared a quote from the poet Mary Oliver that is one of the most poignant descriptions I have ever seen of the challenge to sustaining a creative environment.  From her essay on Power and Time in Upstream, Oliver writes:

“It is a silver morning like any other. I am at my desk. Then the phone rings, or someone raps at the door. I am deep in the machinery of my wits. Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door. And the thought which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone. Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.

But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence. You react, of course. Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.”

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The Immaculate Proprioception

No one who viewed it will ever forget The Immaculate Reception that salvaged a seemingly sure playoff loss for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1972 against the Oakland Raiders, or that it was Franco Harris who made the reception and scored.

What you may not recall even if you’ve seen it, is that the QB, Terry Bradshaw, did a marvelous job buying time on the pass, aided by a key block.  Or that it was a key block that enabled Harris to get to the sideline along which he danced effectively for the walk-off touchdown.

All momentous finishes have behind-the-scenes components that tend to be overshadowed by one seemingly miraculous feature of the play.  Yesterday’s missed Field Goal by ex-Eagle Cody Parkey that knocked the Bears out of the playoffs qualifies as a momentous finish, and it’s unsung hero was Treyvon Hester, a midseason Eagles acquisition who saved the day.

I’m choosing to dub it The Immaculate Proprioception, because it wasn’t apparent during the real-time broadcast that the ball had actually been tipped by Hester.  A key feature of the kick was that Eagles’ coach Doug Pederson had called a timeout to “ice” Parkey just before Cody split the uprights with a perfect FG that didn’t count.

But was it really just the kicker’s state of mind that is altered during these icing timeouts?    Unlike the parallel ploy of basketball coaches calling a timeout to ice a shooter at the foul line, football FGs are a bit different in that the opposing team can do actively something to alter the kick.  So is it possible that Hester saw a gap as the first kick went through that allowed him to change his strategy for how or where he jumped to tip the ill-fated final kick?

Lest we forget, Al Michaels, that there were at least two other elements of the Eagles’ thrilling victory that brought the game down to that last play.  One was the stellar defense that thwarted a two point conversion after the Bears scored a TD with 9:04 left in the quarter to go up 15-10.  The other is the TD pass from Foles to Tate that came late on a 4th and goal with less than a minute to play, setting the stage for Hester’s Immaculate Proprioception.

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The Hebrew Bible

It is customary for people to greet one another on the first night of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, with the phrase “L’Alter, L’Chaim Tovim U’Lshalom”, translated roughly as to old age, to good life, and to peace.  On the dawn of this secular New Year I’ll proclaim a different kind of L’Alter, in tribute to the author of a new Translation and commentary on the Tanach.

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Although you can’t judge a book by its cover, or its casing for that matter, each of the three volumes of Robert Alter’s are adorned by the beautiful cover artistry of Mordecai Ardon, housed in a box showcasing the Aleph of his Creation Series.

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Ardon donated his tapestries to Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, where they are permanently exhibited, and you can view his Kabbalistically-inspired artwork online at the Tali Visual Midrash.

In his introduction, Robert Alter reveals the flavor of his translation.  Consider the sentence from Job (אִיּוֹב):

אַחַי, בָּגְדוּ כְמוֹ-נָחַל; כַּאֲפִיק נְחָלִים יַעֲבֹרוּ

Alter comments: “It is truly helpful, for example, to know that biblical נָחַל most commonly indicates not any sort of brook, creek, or stream, but the kind of freshet, called a wadi in both Arabic and modern Hebrew, that floods a dry desert gulch during the rainy months and vanishes in the heat of the summer.”  The poetic imagery of the נָחַל now takes on the vivid connotation of brothers who betrayed אִיּוֹב like water that evaporates when the heat is turned up.

In this instance, Alter’s scholarly new work is every bit as inviting as its cover(s).

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Life After Plath

Plath ImageSylvia Plath is a poet/author infinitely larger in death than in life.  This weekend’s Wall Street Journal has an article in the Review section on a lost story by Plath unearthed and shortly to be published as Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom.

Plath Cover

John Green does a nice job giving a crash course on Plath’s poetry and the tragic course of her brief life, which she ended at the age of 30.

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/mary-ventura-and-the-ninth-kingdom-sylvia-plath/1129913029?ean=9780062940834#/

Plath’s previously unpublished story about Mary Ventura was written in 1952, a year after her first suicide attempt at age 19.  Here I offer an excerpt of the Wall Street Journal’s excerpt:

The woman bent over her knitting, suddenly intent.  There was a knot in the thread.  Swiftly, she straightened out the wool and went on stitching.  “You’re going to the end of the line, I take it.” she said.

“That’s right, the end of the line.  Father said I didn’t have to worry about connections or anything, and that the conductor would tell me where to go from there.”

“The last station,” the woman murmured.  “Are you sure?”

“Yes.  At least that’s what is says on my ticket.  It is such a strange ticket that I remembered the number, red on black.  The ninth kingdom, it said.  That’s a funny way to label railroad stations.”

… Red neon blinked outside the window, and the train slowed, shouldering into the station of the sixth kingdom.  The car door swung open, and the tread of the conductor came down the aisle to the blond woman up ahead with the red painted mouth, who pleaded, drew her furs about her, and shrank back.  “Not yet”, she said.  “Please, not yet.  This is not my stop.  Give me a little longer.”

“Let me see your ticket.” the conductor said, and the woman wet her lips the color of blood.  “I mislaid it.  I can’t find it,” she said.  “It is in the second finger of your right glove,” the conductor said tonelessly, “where you hid it as I came in.”

… The woman did not move to go.   The conductor put out his hand and gripped her arm. “I am sorry,” he said, “but you must go now.  We can’t have any dallying around on this train.  We have a schedule to keep.  We have a quota of passengers.”

… The conductor came back down the car, wiping his forehead with a a large red silk handkerchief.  He paused at Mary’s seat and grinned at the woman.  His eyes were black, bottomless, but flecked now with cold spots of laughter.  “We usually don’t have that much trouble with the passengers when their stop comes,” he said to the woman.  She smiled back at him, but her voice was tender, regretful.  “No, they generally don’t protest at all.  They just accept it when the time comes.”

“Accept what?”  Mary stared curiously at the two of them, remembering the frightened face of the blond woman, her mouth wet, the color of blood.  The conductor winked at the woman and walked away down the aisle, with the lights burning in the sockets of the walls like candles and the metal vault of the car arching overhead.  The red light of the station slanted through the car windows and briefly stained the faces of the passengers scarlet.  Then the train started up again.

“Accept what?” Mary pursued.  She gave an involuntary shiver as if struck by sudden chill drag of air.  “Are you cold, dear?”  “No”, said Mary.  “Accept what?”

“The destination,” the woman replied, picking up the knitting from her lap and beginning to add to the mesh of leaf-green wool.

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