Who Is Bob Douglas and Why Is He in the Basketball Hall of Fame?

Bob DouglasOn this day in 1972, Bob Douglas became the first African American inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Not Bill Russell?! Who the hell is Bob Douglas anyway?

The Basketball Hall of Fame opened in 1959. But despite the fact that it took them 13 years to induct an African American into it, basketball’s history has not been nearly as racist as baseball. In the early days of basketball, it was highly segregated — but only because the society itself was. There were, for example, white players on the Harlem Globetrotters. What’s more, black teams played white teams.

Bob Douglas was one of the pioneers of barnstorming basketball. He founded and coached the New York Renaissance — generally known as the Rens. Apparently, in the 1920s and early 1930s, the biggest basketball attractions in the nation were the games between the Rens and the Original Celtics (which has nothing to do with the Boston Celtics, but was a very white team). They won the World Professional Basketball Tournament in 1939. And in 1948, they came in second, losing to the Minneapolis Lakers who were led by the legendary George Mikan. (Note: the Minneapolis Lakers are today’s Los Angeles Lakers — they moved in 1960.)

The Rens disbanded in 1949. By that point, the NBA was on the rise. The only team to survive from that period were the Harlem Globetrotters. Although it’s interesting to note that what the Globetrotters are today is more like what basketball used to be. It’s the NBA that has changed the game.

Bob Douglas played a part in getting the first African American player, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, signed to the newly established NBA. That’s incredibly important, of course — as is Douglas’ status as the “Father of Black Professional Basketball.” But what I find so fascinating about people like Bob Douglas is that they have idiosyncratic ideas and they just go with them. The fact that Douglas was hugely successful at his doesn’t matter to me as much as his commitment.

Bob Douglas died in 1979 at the age of 96.

How to Play Chess or at Least Understand It

ChessWhen I was in grammar and secondary school, I found myself playing a lot of games of chess. I never won a single game. I had no idea what I was doing.

When it comes to chess, there are two kinds of people. First, there are people who know how to play. Second, there are people who know the moves. Explaining the moves is what passes for teaching the game. But this is not teaching. Imagine a similar approach to teaching tennis: one person serves, the two players hit the ball back and forth, the first one to hit the ball outside the lines loses; have fun!

I’ll admit: I’m a slow learner. But that’s really the critical element that distinguished the good grammar school players from the bad: a basic understanding of what the game was about. Someone who figured it out for themselves was necessarily a far better player, even if they weren’t a very good player in an absolute sense. And even they would be greatly helped by better chess instruction because it would result in them having better opponents.

When I was in graduate school, I decided to learn how to play chess. But I didn’t turn to any how-to books. I had seen them in the past and they made no sense to me whatsoever. Instead, I picked up a book of games by some chess grandmaster I had never heard of. And I studied those games. In particular, I went move by move and tried to figure out why the chess masters did not make the cunning moves that I had in mind.

If you’ve ever looked at these books, you will notice that there is very little annotation. What annotation there is is for moves that really good players would have questions about. The moves that I thought were correct were never what was played. And the annotations made no sense to me because they discussed issues that were far beyond me.

If you are playing chess hoping that your opponent will make a mistake, you are playing wrong. Chess, when properly played, is a game where you win or lose by inches.

But very slowly I was able to figure out why my moves sucked and why the masters moved the way that they did. And one day — quite suddenly — I understood chess as a game. That didn’t mean that I knew how to play. I still hadn’t started playing. But I got it. I could, for the first time, enjoy the game as a game. (For the record, I believe most people who watch professional sports understand those games at about the same level that I understood chess before my epiphany.)

Once I started playing the kind of people who had destroyed me when I was young, I saw the problem. They understood things like double attacks and traps. And at that point, the game was kind of funny. I would sit across from someone and they would set up a trap for me. And I could see it in their eyes: they were thinking, “Oh please! Oh please!” The truth was, they didn’t really understand the game much better than I had. If you are playing chess hoping that your opponent will make a mistake, you are playing wrong. Chess, when properly played, is a game where you win or lose by inches.

To give you an example, I happened to go to graduate school with a postdoc who was a really good chess player — a near master lever player, despite his drinking, womanizing, and research. He taught me much during the course of destroying me in game after game. But he told me a story about playing against Joshua Waitzkin (The kid in Searching for Bobby Fischer) at some point in a simultaneous exhibition. And my friend had found himself in the highly unusual position of having the advantage after about 20 moves. But my friend lost. And afterward, the kid (probably about 19 then) sat there with him and went over the whole game and each point where my friend made slightly less than the optimal move. That is the nature of chess.

But I still find it annoying that no one ever thought to teach me the game of chess. I was often forced to play in school. But it was a drag. It was like being forced to go to a museum where nothing was explained and no context was given. Chess can be an incredibly creative game. Of course, I never could have been much of a chess player. I’m just not that competitive. But being able to appreciate the game has been edifying, which is all I want from anything that I do.

Afterword

Some might think of Waitzkin going over the game after my friend lost to be something of a jerk move. That was not how my friend presented the story. The kid was at once showing appreciation for a player good enough to give him a bit of trouble and also providing him with a little chess lesson.

Anniversary Post: Nika Riots

Chariot RacesOn this day in 532, the Nika riots occurred. Basically, it was a fight that broke out by different partisans in the big chariot races in Constantinople. Now these partisans were, among other things, political parties. And they were angry about the arrests, three days earlier, of members of the Blues and Greens for murders that had occurred at a previous chariot race.

During the chariot races on 13 January 532, the fans stopped chanting “blue” or “green” and started chanting, “Nika.” This more or less means “win.” The main thing is that the people had united in their anger against Emperor Justinian. But Justinian was no fool; he understood how to divide and conquer. He sent word and gold to the Blues, who abandoned the Greens, allowing the troops to come in and slaughter them. In the end, half the city was burned and 30,000 of the rioters were killed.

The Nika riots were clearly a political uprising, but the proximate cause was the chariot race. It does remind me of football hooligans. But it more reminds me of terrorism. I doubt anyone at the time thought it was really all about chariot races. Yet there are a whole lot of people around today who think that terrorism is all about Islam. In fact, I’m still stinging about an argument I had some time ago where I let off an Islamophobe because I didn’t want to offend someone whose work I had admired. Since then, he’s shown that he is quite clearly an Islamophobe. The distance between New Atheist and Islamophobe can be a hair’s breadth.

Anyway: rioting over chariot races. Quite interesting just because, well: chariot races. Who’d have thought?

Afterword

On a personal note: my parents were married 55 years ago today. But my mother died over a decade ago.

Anniversary Post: Crossword Puzzle

Crossword PuzzleOn This day in 1913, the first ever modern crossword puzzle was published in the New York World. It was designed by an immigrant from Britain, Arthur Wynne. You can see it there on the left. It contains all the things we expect from a crossword puzzle — namely, clues and crisscrossed words.

Wynne named his invention a “Word-Cross Puzzle.” Apparently this changed a couple of weeks later when a typesetter screwed up and printed it as “Cross-Word.” The name stuck. I have to assume it is because “crossword” sounds better than “wordcross.” Just the same, “Sudoku” hardly trips off the tongue.

If I didn’t know me, I would assume that I would be into crossword puzzles. I’m not. It reminds me kind of like my experience with chess. I was horrible at the game until I reached a certain critical mass of information. I did this by analyzing grandmaster games until a switched flipped and I understood what was really going on in games.

When I look at crosswords, I’m stunned. It makes no sense at all to me. For example, I was looking at this one at 24-25 with the clue, “Found on the seashore.” I thought, “That’s crazy! What two letter word is found at the seashore?!” The answer is, “Sand.” So you see, I can’t even figure out the basic mechanics of the game.

But someday, I would like to become a crossword puzzle person. As it is, I think my Sudoku skills are slipping a bit. The last really hard one I tried, I did not manage to finish. I think that’s the first time that’s happened to me since I started doing them about eight years ago. But in my defense, I was probably drunk and didn’t spend that long on it. Given that I went through an obsessive Sudoku period, maybe I should avoid the crosswords altogether.

Jackie Robinson Story and Other Anti-Racism Films

The Jackie Robinson StoryThe Jackie Robinson Story came out in 1950, and, as a selling point, starred the actual Robinson. It’s dated now, largely because it was pretty low-budget, but you have to consider what the movie was for its time.

Naturally movies were made by and for African Americans. Most were independently financed. The major movie studios didn’t want anything to do with addressing racism (today, they give themselves awards for movies which do address it, only 100 years or so after those movies should have been bankrolled.)

Other Anti-Racism Films

There was Fritz Lang’s 1936 Fury, starring Spencer Tracy as a white guy attacked by a lynch mob. Lang was a German whose films impressed Hitler so much, the Führer asked Lang to be his personal #1 filmmaker. Lang got the hell out of Germany. Fury was his first American movie, and while it’s technically about a white guy getting lynched, there are so many African American performers in background roles that audiences knew what was being discussed.

You had The Ox-Bow Incident in 1943, along the same lines. Then 1947 gave us Gentleman’s Agreement, about antisemitism. (You know the old Groucho Marx line “I’d never want to belong to a club that would have me for a member?” Groucho was talking about all-Jewish clubs, because even famous celebrities like him couldn’t join the racist ones.) And Broken Arrow, about the mistreatment of Native Americans, the same year Jackie Robinson came out.

“You’re not only wrong, you’re wrong at the top of your voice.”

The best of all old-Hollywood movies about racism is Bad Day At Black Rock, from 1955. Spencer Tracy — Again! — is a one-armed war veteran who uproots some desert railroad stop by asking questions about what happened to his Japanese-American war buddy. In a great scene, he’s bullied at a lunch counter by a local thug (play by Ernest Borgnine), and delivers one of my favorite-ever lines: “You’re not only wrong, you’re wrong at the top of your voice.”

The Jackie Robinson Story

The Jackie Robinson Story in 1950, broke some real ground. It didn’t only depict Robinson being abused by bigot fans and resented by bigot teammates. It mentioned how African Americans, even those with college degrees (a big deal in those days!) couldn’t get decent jobs. It showed segregation, which movies at the time just didn’t do.

Is Robinson an actor? No. But he doesn’t embarrass himself, either. He’s a little wooden, but that’s not unusual for low-budget movies. His laconic delivery works well in context, since the player Robinson obviously had emotions he wasn’t permitted to express.

What dates the movie more than anything is, surprisingly, how the baseball scenes are directed. They’re terrible. Apparently due to budget constraints, most are shot from the same few angles. So you watch Robinson swing over and over and it becomes snooze-rific. Near the climax (which cheats time and space a little by inventing a pennant-clinching final game) there’s a shot from behind the catcher, showing Brooklyn in the background, and it’s jarringly exciting.

Jackie Robinson is in the public domain now, so you can watch it for free. Here’s one copy via the Internet Archive:

Afterword

In the film, , Robinson is invited to speak before Congress because of his inspiring life story. This was not the case; he was asked to testify before the HUAC on whether singer Paul Robeson was a communist.

HUAC — the House Un-American Activities Committee — was responsible for a series of show trials in the 1950s, instituted as political props for several fear mongering politicians. The commies are gonna get us, see, so elect me! The most notorious of these fear mongers was Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy, who headed the Senate’s version of the HUAC — the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

Robinson gave testimony, and did not turn over on Paul Robeson. Instead, he berated the anti-communist headhunters for demeaning the African American experience of constant racism. You can read part of Robinson’s speech here.

That same site has links to Robinson’s FBI files. Back when, if you said or did anything which offended FBI director J Edgar Hoover’s idea of pure patriotic 100% not-gay Americanism, the FBI would start surveillance on you. To prove that these dark days are over (!) you can now see some creepy FBI files on the Bureau’s website.

Paid Patriotism Is the American Way

Paid PatriotismLast week at Huffington Post I learned this little tidbit of news, Pentagon Paid Up To $6.8 Million Of Taxpayer Money To Pro Sports Teams For Military Tributes. As if it isn’t enough that every football game (not to mention NASCAR race) isn’t wrapped so tightly in the flag that it produces skid marks on it. Add to this the constant commercials for the military that make it look like the job involves rappelling from helicopters and handing out candy to young children. Now we know the Pentagon is paying sports teams to have those charming “we support the troops” displays.

It makes sense if you think about it. After all, what does our military exist for? It certainly doesn’t exist to keep us safe. It exists to maintain the American empire and make sure that markets stay open for our corporations. These are corporations, of course, who show absolutely no loyalty to the country. They have only one (legally defined) loyalty: maximize shareholder value. So as long as it isn’t illegal to sell weapons to groups that would attack us, they will. And let’s face it: if they thought they could get away with selling weapons to ISIS, they would do that too.

So it just makes sense that the military is paying billion dollar sports teams to pretend that the US has to spend almost as much money on the military as the rest of the world combined. It’s all about money and power and the NFL and US Navy really aren’t any different in that way — except that there is more head trauma in the NFL. It isn’t put this way of course. It isn’t “advertising.” That would be too coarse. These are just celebrations of American patriotism, and in this modern world, patriotism is not something that just happens spontaneously! Only Rubes think that!

The actual line items in these contracts are “paid patriotism”:

…the payment of taxpayer or Defense funds to teams in exchange for tributes like NFL’s “Salute to Service.” Honors paid for by the DOD were found not only in the NFL, but also the NBA, NHL, MLB and MLS. They included on-field color guard ceremonies, performances of the national anthem, and ceremonial first pitches and puck drops.

This all came to light because two Republican Senators — John McCain and Jeff Flake — put out a report on it. The report hilariously states, “Given the immense sacrifices made by our service members, it seems more appropriate that any organization with a genuine interest in honoring them, and deriving public credit as a result, should do so at its own expense and not at that of the American taxpayer” Oh please! This is business.

Jeff Flake voted against monitoring TARP funds to encourage mortgage relief. He voted for making it harder for individuals to get bankruptcy protection. He is against the Home Affordable Modification Program. He’s a corporate guy! He knows that if you are rich, you get all the breaks and if you are poor you should be allowed to die of starvation on the streets. He should be all for billionaire sports teams getting a bit of taxpayer money to pretend to care about the military.

I’m not even going to talk about John McCain. I think we all know what a bitter old man he is. The only time he’s ever done the right thing is out of spite. He too is a big booster for society’s winners. So his outrage is about as believable as Captain Renault in Casablanca.

Of course, the whole thing is a joke. But are we really supposed to worry about that $6.8 million spent over four years? That’s $1.7 million per year. The current Benghazi hearing has spent $4.5 million over the past 17 months. That’s $3.2 million per year — almost twice as much. If the money is the issue, then we shouldn’t care. If it is the idea of it, then we should applaud. This is exactly what America stands for — and what McCain and Flake think it should stand for.

Anniversary Post: Quiz Show Scandal

Charles Van DorenOn this day in 1959, Charles Van Doren admitted to having been given the answers on the show Twenty One in the quiz show scandal. It’s remarkable in the sense that it is such a trivial thing. Why was Congress investigating it? Yet this is what happens all the time. People get worked up about little things and they become very big deals.

I was sad to hear that Hillary Clinton is still maintaining her support for the death penalty. She said, “I do not favor abolishing it, however, because I do think there are certain egregious cases that still deserve the consideration of the death penalty…” What are these “egregious cases”? Well, she mentioned one: the Boston Marathon bomber. And why is that? Because what Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was so much worse than other murderers? No. It’s just pandering to what the mob has decided is this week’s “egregious case.” That’s no way to run a society.

Of course, Clinton is one of the good ones. She’s not even in the same league as the demagogues in the Republican Party. But this is probably the best reason to vote for Bernie Sanders. Not that he is perfect. We are all guilty of this. But I would have hoped after all these years, we would have gotten better. We seem to be worse.

Anniversary Post: The Rumble in the Jungle

The Rumble in the JungleOn this day in 1974 was The Rumble in the Jungle. It was the iconic boxing match between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo). Everyone expected Foreman to destroy Ali. Foreman was stronger and arguably as fast. But Ali seems to have developed his rope-a-dope strategy while in the ring. Using it, he managed to wear down Foreman, who collapsed in the eighth round.

I remember standing in a bookstore reading the introduction of a book about Muhammad Ali. It was written by George Foreman. Foreman talked about the fight. He said if he knew what he knows now, he thinks that Ali still would have figured out a way to beat him — that Ali was just that great and intelligent a boxer. All I could think was that Foreman was one class act. And he might well be right. But clearly they were both among the greatest boxers of all time.

Most of what I know about The Rumble in the Jungle comes from the film When We Were Kings. It’s well worth checking out if you get a chance. Most of it is not directly about the fight. There was so much going on around the fight — especially music. And the politics are well on display with all of the paranoia of the villain Mobutu Sese Seko.

Anniversary Post: “The Game of the Century”

Donald ByrneOn this day in 1956 was “The Game of the Century” — a chess game in the Rosenwald Memorial Tournament between 26 year old Donald Byrne and 13 year old Bobby Fisher. At the time, Byrne was a leading chess player in the US.

Byrne lost the game, due mostly to an amazing queen “sacrifice” by Fischer, which, over the course of several moves results in Fisher winning a rook, two bishops, and a pawn — generally counted as 12 points versus 10 points for the queen. I’ve always thought that Byrne showed very good sportsmanship for playing the game through long after he knew he had lost. Mostly, he underestimated the 13-year-old chess genius.

It isn’t actually that interesting a game. Fischer himself conspicuously ignored it in his My 60 Memorable Games. As noted, Byrne was a great player. In 1955, for example, while playing black, he beat one of the chess icons of the 20th century Efim Geller. He went on to become an International Master in 1962. It is assume that he would have become a Grandmaster, but he was in poor health and died of lupus at the age of 45.

A Tale of Two Willie Hortons

Willie Wattison HortonThe convicted murderer Willie Horton comes up in my writing quite often, because of his use by Lee Atwater in George HW Bush’s presidential campaign against Michael Dukakis in 1988. Dukakis was going to lose that campaign regardless, but the Horton ad is a classic example of racist demagoguery. But the last time I looked up “Willie Horton” on Google, I noticed, “See results about: Willie Horton (Baseball player).” And I thought: that’s gotta suck for him. But that was as far as I took it. But over the weekend, our own James Fillmore wrote an article over at Twinkie Town, The Other Willie Horton.

Willie Horton was a left fielder for the Detroit Tigers for most of the 1960s and 1970s. He hit 325 home runs and 1,163 RBIs in his 18 season career. That makes him tied for 109th most career home runs and 174th for RBIs. The guy had an amazing career — the high point of which was winning the World Series in 1968. But Fillmore started his article the year before, during the 1967 Detroit riot. Horton got into the thick of the violence, shortly after a game. Still dressed in his uniform, he pleaded with the mob for calm. It was a heroic, if doomed, effort.

The article tell’s Horton’s (literal) rags to riches story. And spends a fair amount of time talking about his public service work since his initial effort in 1967. It also has some curious facts, like his keeping his batting helmet when he switched teams, and painting it with the new team colors and logo. Nothing is mentioned of it, but I assume this is due to the usual athlete’s superstition about making changes, because you never know. It’s one of the most charming things about sports figures. I understand the impulse very well.

I don’t really know what great stats are, but clearly Horton was one of the greats. He wasn’t someone who slipped into the majors for a season or two and was never seen again. He’d certainly have to be considered one of the top 2,000 people to ever play. To provide some context, there are over a thousand active MLB players at any given time. So Horton is great. He’s not Willie Mays, certainly, but he isn’t that much worse. Yet when you enter his name into Google, you don’t even see a reference to him on the first scream on most computers. Instead, you see the Bush campaign’s despicable act of demagoguery.

I understand: Google search results are not accolades. In the grand scheme of things, the Willie Horton campaign ad is more important than the life and baseball career of Willie Wattison Horton. But it seems a shame. People like to talk about incentives. But in our society, there isn’t much difference between accolades and notoriety — whether it be profiteering hedge fund managers, murderers, or demagogues. Or great baseball players and social activists.

Afterword

For the record, the murderer’s name is actually William Horton. The demagogues who used part of his life changed his name to “Willie” to add to the stereotype — to make him more “black.”

Anniversary Post: Chevrolet Camaro

1967 CamaroOn this day in 1966, the first (1967 model year) Chevrolet Camaro went on the market. As longtime readers know, I really don’t care for cars. But I actually know something about the Camaro. I can tell if a Camaro is a 1967 model or something else. That is because the 1967 Camaro is the only one that has a vent window. And to know this little bit of car trivia fills me with pride.

When I was a little boy, my parents owned what I think was a 1968 Camaro. It was painted gold. And I remember seeing a Camaro around that time that was painted yellow with a purple racing stripe. As part of my filial duties, I sometimes go with my father to old car shows. And I’m amazed at how often people put racing stripes on “muscle” cars. (The Camaro is supposedly a “pony” car.) It seems so silly to me. Do these people think they are race car drivers?

My father is very much a General Motors kind of guy. He’s very into Buicks. This is kind of odd to me, because whenever I see an American car that I think is compelling at one of these shows, it is almost always a Ford. And as an example of this, I think the Mustang is a much more interesting car than a Camaro. Of course, if I had to have a car, I would like one of those old (tiny) Mini Coopers. As it was, my sister used to have a really old Subaru Justy, and I loved that car. You can make those little cars dance. Literally:

Afterword

James FogleIt would be the 79th birthday of James Fogle today. He wrote the novel Drugstore Cowboy. And he wrote a number of other novels, but they’ve never been published. The thing about him is that he actually lived the life that he wrote about in his one published novel. So he spent a lot of time in prison and ended up dying in prison. It’s a shame, because Fogle clearly had a lot to offer to the world. But we do have that one novel and we have the excellent film that was made from it — which I consider by far the best drug movie ever made.

The Surprisingly Interesting Story of the Birth and Death of the Astrodome

AstrodomeOur man from Minnesota, James Fillmore wrote a very interesting article over at his post at Twinkie Town, The Original Field Of Dreams. It’s about the creation of the Astrodome. I have a personal interest in that because the only MLB game I’ve seen outside the Bay Area was in the Astrodome — in the early 1970s: the Reds against the Astros. I knew nothing of the Astros, but I knew Johnny Bench. And I knew Pete Rose. And I probably knew other players at that time. As I recall, the Reds were a very famous team then.

The article contains all kind of information that I never knew. To start with, the team’s name was changed from the Colt 45s (Ugh!) to the Astros, following the name of the stadium, which was a hat tip to NASA being headquartered in Houston. And apparently, NASA scientists had some involvement in the project. It is an amazing thing. These kinds of things are everywhere now, but then it was cutting edge. I’ve always wondered way the first of these was made in Houston where the weather is generally good. But as Fillmore pointed out in his article: it was all about the money. One of the owners, Roy Hofheinz, was super connected to the state government — a fact that future owners would use to steal public funds for their private endeavors.

But the most interesting part of the story is about the turf. The Astrodome was built with a roof which was “a latticework of metal and glass-ish plastic, it allowed sunlight to glow inside and grow real grass for the field.” Brilliant! Real grass! That’s great. But as everyone knows, that didn’t work out so well. The reason was because it created a huge amount of glare. The players had a hard time fielding balls. So the owners did the obvious thing: they painted over the plastic. Problem solved!

Of course, it created a new problem: the lack of sunlight caused the grass to die. So, “The Astros finished 1965 playing on a field of dead grass, spray-painted green.” There was nothing, the Astros management seemed to think, that could not be solved with a coat of paint! But that only worked for so long. As Fillmore explained:

They installed “Chemical Grass” the next year, whose manufacturer (Monsanto) quickly renamed it “AstroTurf.” Which I believe you are all familiar with. As you are its later competitor, “FieldTurf,” supposedly more grass-like but having the drawback of looking like a carpet with mange. And you know about the domed stadiums that followed.

So it was Monsanto! Of course it was Monsanto! And speaking of corporate criminals, the Astrodome was the first stadium to create “luxury boxes” — where rich jerks can right off expensive game viewing as a business deduction because they are “entertaining” other rich jerks. Of course, all that is gone now. The Astros left the stadium in 2000. It’s last “event” was to shelter victims of Hurricane Katrina. But the people of Houston want to find a use for it. It once represented the future. It’s kind of like having an actual Commodore 64 running Castle Wolfenstein in your study. Sure, there are more advanced things, but nothing more wonderful.