Bobbling Along With Style

History has not been especially kind to King George IV of the United Kingdom. Many of his contemporaries described him as selfish, unreliable, and just kind of the worst. He was difficult to work with, indulged frequently in heavy drinking, and he was a pretty terrible husband. But he did have one thing going for him. The man had style.

Referred to as the “First Gentleman of England,” George had tremendous influence on style and taste in the early 19th century. He was particularly passionate about architecture and design, and spared no detail when planning his Brighton Pavilion beginning in 1787. Built after Indian architectural styles, then Prince George chose Asian-influenced décor for the interior. And it’s pretty heard to question the man’s impeccable taste when you realize that this choice led to the incorporation of a bunch of bobbleheads.

This is a Japanese “nodder” doll that dates to the 16th century, though bobblehead-style dolls are probably older than that. Cleveland Museum of Art [CC0], Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
According to the website of the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum, which is a real place in Milwaukee, WI in case you ever want to go, George was pretty fond of these Chinese and Japanese dolls with oversized heads attached with string. Perhaps it was because when nudged, they always agreed with him.

Not a great deal seems to be known about the origin of the bobblehead, except that something like it seems to have developed in parts of Asia prior to 1760 or so when it started nodding its way into Europe and became a fun, manufactured product coming out of Germany.

This could be yours for just $19.95 on Amazon right now. No, seriously.

The bobblehead doll’s popularity has waxed and waned over the years since its introduction to the western world, but it’s been on the rise pretty steadily now since the late nineties when the San Francisco Giants handed out 20,000 big-headed bobbling Willie Mayses to a crowd of enthusiastic fans.

Since that time an army of distorted, acquiescent, cartoon celebrities, athletes, and even Pope Francises has been released upon the world.

And though I hope I’m not selfish or unreliable or just kind of the worst, I have to agree with King George IV on this one. I find bobbleheads pretty adorable and I do have quite a few. Mine are all of the baseball variety, collected from stadium giveaways.

It’s a fun collection that sometimes borders on the ridiculous. In fact, just this past weekend, the promotional giveaway at the stadium I love the most was a double bobblehead featuring two of the all-time greats from the history of the team. Because my husband and I couldn’t go to the game, we bought our nephew a ticket so he could go and collect our keepsake for us.

cardinal bobbleheads
My husband is fond of saying, “There’s no more agreeable activity than dusting a collection of bobbleheads.”

Our prize has now found a new home in our baseball-inspired family room, which probably isn’t all that influential in the style and taste department. But it is a pretty accommodating place to be, surrounded by nodding statues in matching uniforms.

If you’ve followed this blog for a long time, you may recall that uniform has a pair of red birds on it. Also, you may recall that I don’t mention the team that wears that uniform by name when they are in the middle of a playoff run. Yes, I realize that’s not rational, but bear with me here. The last time I blogged about my favorite Midwestern flock of baseball-playing birds during a playoff run without using their actual team name, they won the World Series. I’m just doing my part.

With style.

Corned Beef and Cabbage and Something about Snakes

Last week I got to do something fabulous. I took a quick girls’ trip to Florida with my sister, cousin, and aunt. And I did not take my kids or my husband. Not that I don’t like traveling with them. They’re really fun people. But this was a special trip to celebrate my sister’s birthday by hanging out on the beach and watching some baseball.

We went to Jupiter, Florida, spring training home of the St. Louis Cardinals (and the Florida Marlins, but nobody cares), where we attended three games, played on the beach, explored a lighthouse with the most amusing tour guide I’ve ever encountered (but that’s another post), witnessed a rehabilitated sea turtle get released into the wild, ate a lot of cheesecake, and had, generally, a really great time.

Okay, so it wasn’t strictly a girls’ trip. Of course we had to take Steve the traveling sock monkey. He’s a huge fan!

And even though I didn’t take him with me, I could not have enjoyed such a trip without the efforts of my wonderful husband who rearranged his busy work schedule to hold down the fort for a few days, getting the kids to and from school, managing homework, keeping up with all the activities, and cooking dinner.

It’s this last part I may appreciate the most, because while I was gone, he cooked corned beef and cabbage. It’s a dish a lot of Americans will be preparing tomorrow in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, even in spite of the fact that it falls this year on a Friday in Lent and at least the dedicated Catholics among us should probably stick to fish.

I confess that not being particularly Irish, nor even the tiniest bit Catholic, I’ve never really known a great deal about Saint Patrick. I just know that if you don’t wear something green on March 17th, someone somewhere will feel compelled to pinch you and that if you cook corned beef and cabbage in my house while I’m home (or possibly in the same state), your fate will be much worse than that.

It turns out history doesn’t yield up a whole lot of reliable information about St. Patrick, either. We know that he was born in Britain sometime in the last half of the 5th century, that he arrived in Ireland as a slave at age sixteen (possibly kidnapped by pirates), made it back home six years later, and had a vision calling him back to Ireland as a missionary, where he proceeded to do all kinds of legendary things like preaching with shamrocks and driving out snakes. That’s where his story gets a little muddy, and may (as some historians suggest) get combined with another missionary known as Palladius who was in Ireland in the early half of the 5th century.

saint patrick
Though we don’t know for sure, it seems likely enough St. Patrick may have used the shamrock to illustrate the concept of the Trinity, since Ireland actually has shamrocks. Unlike snakes, which Ireland never did have. Not even green ones.[Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
But the lack of concrete details sure doesn’t stop us all from gettin’ our green on, even though the color more historically associated with this saint is actually blue. Historical stuff does tend to yellow with age, and Chicago goes to all that trouble to turn their river disgusting green, so I guess I’ll allow it.

The tradition that I can’t tolerate, however, is corned beef and cabbage. And frankly, I shouldn’t have to. Because Saint Patrick is as likely to have eaten corned beef as he is to have driven all of the snakes from Ireland (which, according to fossil records, never existed there in the first place). In fact, historically, Irishmen in general never ate much beef, the meaty part of their diet tending to be primarily salted pork.

If we really want to celebrate St. Patrick and all things Irish, then it’s bacon we should be eating. Now that I could get behind.

It wasn’t until the great influx of Irish immigrants into America in the 19th century that corned beef became a St. Patrick’s thing at all, and that’s only because the meaty part of the American diet tended to be more beefy. Relatively cheap beef brisket was readily available to Irish Americans who settled in large numbers alongside the kosher delis of their Jewish neighbors, and so they convinced themselves, their descendants, and green beer-guzzling Americans from all walks of life that corned beef and cabbage is a good, Irish-y idea.

But it’s not.

I’m not a total party pooper. I will wear this ridiculous hat while not eating corned beef and cabbage.

Still, Americans will fire up their crock pots, stink up their houses, and line up in droves to eat corned beef and cabbage tomorrow. And I’m sure those lines will include a lot of Irish and/or green beer-guzzling American Catholics throughout the country where many local dioceses (though far from all) have granted dispensations to their parishioners who wish to partake.  

I can honestly say there’s not enough green beer in the world to make me want to participate in the tradition, and because I married a very smart and thoughtful man, I don’t have to. He had his corned beef last week. By the time I got back from my trip, the house had thoroughly aired out. Had it not, I’d not have hesitated to head back to the beach.

Peanuts, Cracker Jack, and the Most Important Political Movement of Our Time

On Tuesday of this week, a movement of monumental proportions began in the United States. Sure we could be focused on political instability in the Ukraine, nuclear missile testing in North Korea, the ongoing saga of US healthcare reform, or even the hot mess that is Arizona politics, but wouldn’t we rather turn our attention to what really matters: baseball.

The opening of the 2014 St. Louis Cardinals world championship season is only about a month away and rumor has it there may even be some other teams playing, too. Obviously it’s time we start turning our national attention to how we plan to celebrate this wondrous event.

It's hard to disagreee with someone who nods all the time.
It’s hard to disagree with someone who nods all the time.

Thirteen gold glove winning Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith has an idea. He has teamed up with Budweiser (an originally American company now owned by the Belgian company InBev that is committed to demonstrating its all-American-ness) to start a petition that would require the Federal government to consider declaring baseball’s opening day a national holiday. The petition started circulating on Tuesday and the goal is to get the necessary 100,000 signatures within thirty days, giving Smith just enough time to deliver it to the White House before opening day.

And why not? I mean, obviously the federal government doesn’t have much else going on and I can’t think of any reason such a move wouldn’t garner bipartisan support. Because baseball is, after all, America’s Pastime.

But is it really all that American? The history of the sport is a little muddy. There’s evidence that there were bat and ball games played even in Ancient Egypt and the most likely direct ancestors of baseball come largely from England where games like Cricket and Rounders have developed and evolved over centuries.

But when in 1903 British sports writer Henry Chadwick penned an article claiming baseball was a derivative of rounders (which to be fair, is an incredibly similar game), Americans cried foul (or threw their  helmets on the ground, kicked up some dirt, and ejected Chadwick from the game). A commission was formed to ascertain the truth.

What they found was a likely made-up story by a thoroughly unreliable witness who insisted that the first game of baseball played on a well-defined diamond was invented by Abner Doubleday in 1839 in Cooperstown, New York. So it was settled. Baseball was as American as apple pie and it still is.

I'm thinking of petitioning the US government to form a commission to ascertain the truth behind the American-ness of apple pie. photo credit: Barbara.K via photopin cc
I’m thinking of petitioning the US government to form a commission to ascertain the truth behind the American-ness of apple pie. photo credit: Barbara.K via photopin cc

Of course the “witness” was five at the time this game would have taken place and the only “evidence” he could provide was a sketch of Doubleday’s field that he himself reproduced more than sixty years later. It’s also proven unlikely that Doubleday was ever in Cooperstown in 1839, but now I’m probably just being picky.

Even the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown has admitted that the opening of its doors in 1939 honored “the mythical ‘first game’ that allegedly was played in Cooperstown on June 12, 1839.” Commissioner of baseball Bud Selig on the other hand “really believe[s] that Abner Doubleday is the ‘Father of Baseball,’” which just goes to show you that at least one noteworthy baseball expert (my husband) is right when he says that Bud Selig should probably be considered unreliable on most things baseball.

The first truly concrete evidence of American baseball is from a 1791 ordinance in Pittsfield, Massachusetts banning play of the sport near a community building, the fine for which was to garnish allowance until any broken windows had been paid for by the players. So it’s safe to conclude that at least a similar sport to that which we now know as baseball, was being played (carelessly) in America.

And that would be really something if there wasn’t just as reliably recorded evidence that baseball (referred to separately from both rounders and cricket) was being played in England by British royalty as early as 1749.

Okay, so in rounders you swing a bat at a ball and score by successfully running around four bases. But she's clearly holding the bat in one hand. It's completely different. See?  photo credit: theirhistory via photopin cc
Okay, so in rounders you swing a bat at a ball and score by successfully running around four bases. But she’s clearly holding the bat in one hand. It’s completely different. See? photo credit: theirhistory via photopin cc

So, is baseball a quintessentially American sport deserving of its own national holiday? I’m not sure. It’s true that no one loves baseball quite like the US (except for maybe Cuba, South Korea, the Netherlands, the Dominican Republic, and Japan, just to name a few). And there can be no doubt that the rules of the sport as it is played today developed primarily in the United States (where it was decided in 1845 that winging a baseball at someone’s head for an out might not constitute fair play).

According to Ozzie Smith 22 million Americans claim to have at least at one time played hooky to enjoy opening day so he reckons we ought to make it official. And though I don’t think I’ll sign the petition, I’m sure he’ll get his signatures. At the time of this posting, it stands at  36, 612 with 27 days remaining. And regardless of what happens, my family will celebrate the way we always do, with hot dogs and nachos, with ice cream in those little plastic batting helmets, and with unbridled enthusiasm.

National holiday or not, I'll be getting my celebration on.
National holiday or not, I’ll be getting my celebration on.

This blog post is NOT about the St. Louis Cardinals

Though sport has been a part of the human experience for about as long as history has been recorded, the concept of professional team sports is relatively recent. Until industrialization came along, people simply didn’t have time for much leisure activity, but  the mid-1800’s saw the emergence of the first professional football leagues (that’s “soccer” to all us uncultured Americans).

Then in 1876 professional sports, specifically baseball, arrived in the US with the establishment of the National League. The American League joined the fun in 1901. The NHL, with a slightly more complicated history, can trace its origin to 1909. 1920 brought us the NFL and the NBA started in 1946.

And with the rise of all these professional athletes came the rise superstition in sports. Why is this, you might ask? Well, historians have often noted that superstition is most pronounced in times when people feel they have little control over the outcome of their own lives. Professional athletes capable of competing at the highest level of their sport find themselves competing against others who are more or less equally capable.

The result of this kind of competition is, more often than we would like, dependent less on pure talent than on circumstance. Often miscommunication, questionable calls by officials, and poorly timed injuries make the difference between winning and losing. How can a team protect itself from such unforeseen problems? The answer is obviously to conjure the most luck.

Teams do this all the time. NHL teams famously refuse to touch their Conference Champion Trophies for fear it will bring them bad luck in their quest for the Stanley Cup and often the members of a baseball team will not shave during a post season run. My favorite team ritual by far, though, is that of professional rugby team, The All Blacks who perform a traditional war chant in front of the opposing team before each game.

But whereas team rituals can be attributed to increasing team camaraderie, the personal superstitions of many professional athletes are just plain bizarre. They range from the unwillingness of baseball players to change places in the batting order, to rubbing the head of the bat boy, or commonly the refusal or insistence of stepping on particular markings on the field of play. It seems there’s no end to what rituals professional athletes will try in an attempt to give themselves a slight edge. But not all players put much stock in such behaviors.

Babe Ruth, who once famously said, “I have only one superstition. I touch all the bases when I hit a homerun,” penned an article that ran in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette on May 28th of 1929, about his response to a fan’s suggestion that Ruth was wearing the wrong number. That year the Yankees became the first team to consistently wear numbers on the back of their jerseys and the Bambino wore the number 3 on his. The concerned fan, a self-identified numbers expert, explained that according to his observations of Ruth (who was in a minor hitting slump at the time), the player should be wearing the number 7. If he made the change, the fan insisted, he would have a great season. If not, Lou Gehrig, who sported the number 4 on his jersey (the appropriate number for him according to the “expert”) would certainly outhit Babe.

In response, Babe had only this to say: “Somehow I’ve got a sneaking hunch that the number on a fellow’s back doesn’t have much to do with his hitting one way or another—and I’m a lot more interested in getting my eye on the ball right now than I am in picking out lucky numbers or studying the stars.” Turns out Babe Ruth probably didn’t do any harm by disregarding the fan’s suggestion. In 1929, he hit 46 homeruns, drove in 154 runs and had an overall batting average of .345. Not bad; and, notably, better than #4 Lou Gehrig.

English: Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig at United St...

The Yankees did have an off year, though. Their pitching struggled terribly and even with heavy hitters at the plate, they weren’t able to pull off a third consecutive championship, finishing up in second place behind the Philadelphia Athletics. If I know anything about baseball fans, I’m guessing numbers guy wasn’t surprised.

Because if professional athletes sometimes depend on a particular routine or good luck charm in an attempt to influence those factors that are largely out of their control, that is nothing compared to what their fans do. Fans are, after all, stuck on the sidelines, in front of the television, or tuned in to the game updates when our focus really should be elsewhere. Fans have no real control over the outcome of the game. All we can do is wish and hope and stress out.

So fans don good luck charms, eat specific foods, perform elaborate celebration dances, and generally engage in all manner of charm casting. Pretty much anything goes, because as a recent Bud Light commercial expresses: “It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.”

So for example, a practical historian known for rational thought and witty discourse (perhaps for her beauty and charm as well, but who can say) might convince herself that it is essential that she wear the same piece of jewelry every day of the playoffs as long as a certain flock of baseball playing birds from an undisclosed Midwestern city are still in contention. She might seek comfort during tense playoff moments by tightly hugging a plush toy of the team mascot. And perhaps she would even refuse to blog about her team until their postseason run is over. It wouldn’t be weird, though because it’s totally going to work.

So maybe I do care if I ever get back.

On April 18, 1981, the night before Easter that year, young David Craig attended a baseball game in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, at the invitation of his uncle, Dennis Craig, the home plate umpire. Little did he know that the Triple-A game between the Pawtucket Red Sox and the Rochester Red Wings would make baseball history as the longest professional baseball game ever played.

With a start time of 8:25 p.m., the game began as a regular pitching duel, scoreless for six innings. The Red Wings finally scored a run in the 7th; the Red Sox answered in the 9th. Next came another 11 scoreless innings (yes, you read that right). So then in the 21st inning, when the Red Wings scored, only to have Pawtucket’s Wade Boggs drive in the tying run in the bottom of the inning, no one was particularly happy about it (least of all Boggs). The players endured another 11 scoreless innings until league president Harold Cooper heard about it and demanded the suspension of play at the conclusion of the 32nd inning (at 4:07 a.m.!).

At this point, the crowd had dwindled from 1,740 to a mere 19 (excessively loyal) fans, each of whom received, for their devotion, season passes to the stadium. Not included in the count is David Craig, who by this time, was fast asleep. To the best of his uncle’s knowledge, David Craig has never since been to another baseball game.

And, as much as I love baseball, I can’t say I blame him.

I recently attended a game that had me questioning my own devotion to the sport. On Sunday, June 17th (Father’s Day), my family went to a game at Busch Stadium in St. Louis (a rare treat now that we live on the West Coast) between the Cardinals and the Kansas City Royals.

First, I should explain a little about my own relationship to Cardinal baseball. I am a fan by birth. More specifically, my maternal grandparents were fans. My father (originally just another frustrated Cubs follower) became a dedicated fan by marriage. My siblings are fans. My husband and most of his family are fans. And now the next generation (with the exception of one nephew, who hasn’t been alive long enough yet to fully grasp that the Cubs are never going to win) is made up of Cards fans. Cardinal baseball is entwined with some of my most precious memories of childhood and family.

I am not the person who is going to recite for you the names and stats of every player who has ever worn a Cardinals jersey, but I catch the games when I can and generally follow the team’s ups and downs. I celebrated their World’s Series victories in 1982, 2006, and 2011 and my heart broke those years when they were close enough to taste it, but were ultimately unsuccessful. I follow them closely enough to proudly proclaim that they have the most championship wins of any team in baseball (because the Yankees don’t count).

Still, I have to admit, I wasn’t really that upset to see them lose the Father’s Day game to Kansas City. With the exception of a couple of back-to-back homeruns by Cardinals Matt Holliday and Alan Craig in the 6th, it was a relatively boring game. The Cards were up by 1 in the top of the 9th; their closer Jason Motte was on fire, throwing fast balls the Royals couldn’t see, let alone hit. There were two outs, two strikes, and I was already packing up my kiddos (a little bored, though they had hung in pretty well for little guys) when disaster struck in the form of a solo shot homerun by Kansas City’s Billy Butler.

Inwardly I groaned, but I was fairly confident that the Cardinals would score to end the game. They didn’t. Instead it went on for 6 more innings. Each team had chances to win. Neither did. And the thing about extra inning baseball is that it’s rarely good, because nine innings of baseball is enough to tire most players out. After about 11 or so, the fatigue begins to show. And by 14(when there really should be another stretch because a sing-along might help lift everyone’s spirits), has caught a big case of the Please just let it ends.

The crowd thinned more and more after each half inning until it was pretty much just us and the Kansas City fans. The organist got stuck in a rut of weary charge riffs. And we debated. Even nearly left a couple of times, but you just don’t travel 2000 miles to go to a baseball game and not see it through to the end. By the time it was finally over, the game had lasted around 5 hours. When Kansas City’s Yunieski Bettencourt hit a 2-run homer the 15th, I am ashamed to admit, I was sort of hoping a little bit that the Cards wouldn’t recover (though I would have happily cheered for a three-run homer if one happened to come their way).

I am also a little ashamed to admit how truly upset I was that St. Louis swept the Royals in Kansas City the very next weekend, not, of course, because they won, but because they didn’t win when I was there to see it.

And I have to wonder just how long we would have stayed at the ballpark. Certainly (okay, probably) not 32 innings. The Pawtucket-Rochester game was continued, by the way. The next time the two teams were scheduled to play in Pawtucket, on June 23, in front of a sellout crowd of 5,746, play resumed. In one inning (just under 18 minutes of play), the Red Sox won it in the bottom of the 33rd inning. David Craig wasn’t there to see it.