Lou Gehrig: Hero and Icon in Turbulent Times

June 19, 2013 was the 167th anniversary of the first organized and recorded baseball game (1846) as well as Lou Gehrig’s 110th birthday.  As a celebration of these events, I will be publishing posts that analyze the importance of Baseball and Lou Gehrig in particular on American Culture.

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A young Lou Gehrig in his Columbia University uniform (1921).

When it comes to sports figures, there have been few who by virtue of their character transcend their physical talent and the sporting world itself and become American cultural icons.  In his illustrious career shortened by tragedy, Lou Gehrig embodied the American cultural values of the era in which he thrived.  While he spent much of his career in the incredible shadow of Babe Ruth, eventually Lou Gehrig would emerge from his Ruthian shadow and personify the values of the 1930’s.  Amidst a world of uncertainty caused by the threat of war and a continuing economic depression, Lou Gehrig stood as a testimony of certainty- playing in 2,130 games until Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) put a sudden and tragic end to his playing days.  His rise from a modest upbringing coupled with his moral fiber and adherence to copybook maxims would serve both as a rags-to-riches story and a testimony to what hard work and personal strength could accomplish.  Through his determination, diligence, strength, and moral fiber, Gehrig became an American hero.

During the 1920s, the brilliance of Gehrig’s game – and anyone else’s game for that matter- was overshadowed by Ruth’s booming drives and personality.  Describing Ruth, baseball historian Donald Honig wrote, “He was a one-man circus, born and molded to entertain, dominate, captivate, and altogether flourish in the imagination…Everything about Ruth was big, big, big, from the statistics to the personality to the impact.  He was Moby Dick in a goldfish bowl.”[1]  In the 1920s, the United States emerged from World War I as a word power, a forced to be reckoned with.  The decade, which would go on to be known as “the Roaring Twenties,” was one where the United States experienced vast economic growth.  The stock market soared as people rushed to buy stock on credit, the automobile was mass produced, and radio production went through the roof as the medium flourished.  Fresh off of the labor unrest and progressive movements of the early twentieth century, wages were higher than ever before, and hours were lower than ever before.  There was more money to be spent for the average consumer, and the working and middle classes had a lot of time on their hands. Coupled with an escapism fueled by the bitterness of the scientific killing of World War I and the glorification of science, the increase in both free time and money to spend lead to a growth in both consumption and a mass culture, and no one epitomized this more than Babe Ruth.  The people of America craved as much as they could get and Babe Ruth was the poster child for excess.  “To whatever engaged him he was the mightiest:  hitter, pitcher, womanizer, drinker, eater.”[2]  Writing on him in 1921, F.C. Lane wrote, “Babe Ruth excels all competition by a margin so wide that there is simply no comparison.”[3] Continue reading

The Rise of Baseball as an Expression of Cultural Values Part Two: Baseball’s Post Civil War Boom to FDR’s “Green Light” Letter

June 19, 2013 was the 167th anniversary of the first organized and recorded baseball game (1846) as well as Lou Gehrig’s 110th birthday.  As a celebration of these events, I will be publishing posts that analyze the importance of Baseball and Lou Gehrig in particular on American Culture.  Please Read Part One Here.

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The Hall of Fame Plaque of Henry Chadwick, baseball’s iconic promoter and first beat writer who was instrumental in creating the statistics and record keeping still used in today’s game. (Source: http://baseballhall.org/hof/chadwick-henry).

While the NABBP suffered in organization and attendance during the Civil War, the end of hostilities resulted in baseball being more popular than ever.  Many veterans, most notably Hall of Fame Member and first National League President Morgan G. Bulkeley, would advance the promotion and organization of both professional leagues and interest in baseball in the decades following the Civil War.  Notable clubs continued barnstorming tours throughout the United States.  On September 6, 1867, the Walla Walla Statesman advertised a game between a local club and the Brooklyn Excelsiors. “”The Excelsiors having challenged the Walla Wallas to play a match game of baseball, the challenge has been accepted and the game will come off at the ball grounds to-morrow …Clubs will bring out their crack players, and hence an interesting game may be expected.”[1]    More than 259 miles away, the Vancouver register noted “Base ball mania” had reached its African American townspeople who were buying equipment at a local town stores.[2]  Traveling clubs from the north east as well as soldiers returning to the west and south spread the popularity of baseball beyond its pre-Civil War market.  This spread helped reduce the class and race barriers that existed in the early years of baseball, thereby allowing a wide variety of Americans to enjoy the game.  At Vassar College, women formed baseball clubs, encouraging other colleges to follow suit with women’s teams.  In 1867, the Dolly Vardens of Philadelphia were formed with a membership consisting entirely of African American women.

With the return of peace the popularity of baseball soared.  The Arizona Weekly Miner reported games being played by mining teams throughout the state on immigrant heavy baseball teams.  In 1868, historian Jules Tygiel estimates 200,000 baseball enthusiasts had attended a baseball game.[3] Books such as Beadle’s Dime Base-Ball Player and children’s fiction Changing Base were popular.  Americans were following, discussing, and reading about baseball like never before. Commenting on the era, the Chicago Tribune would call the post civil war era “the arrival of the age of baseball,” a sentiment which was shared by publications throughout America.[4]
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The Rise of Baseball as an Expression of National Values Part One: the Colonial Period Through the Civil War

June 19, 2013 is the 167th anniversary of the first organized and recorded baseball game (1846) as well as Lou Gehrig’s 110th birthday.  Over the next few days, I will be publishing posts that analyze the importance of Baseball and Lou Gehrig in particular on American Culture.  This is Part One.

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“Baseball Match at the Elysian Fields, Hoboken.” Harper’s Weekly, October 15, 1859. (http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/british/brit-7.html)

In 1845, a group of middle class New Yorkers known as the Knickerbockers began organizing and standardizing the rules to a sport that would become baseball.  Shortly thereafter, amateur baseball clubs and organization sprang up around the greater New York area.  The outbreak of the Civil War and troop movements furthered the spread of the game, and by the 1870s professional teams and organizations were promoting baseball as a spectator sport.

As baseball spread in popularity, the game itself became a representation of American values.  Promoters of the sport hailed it as a democratic institution[1] where players act “like a gentleman on all occasions” never taking “an ungenerous advantage of his opponents.”[2]  Baseball’s sensibility and reputation was opined by enthusiasts as uniquely American, and immigrants soon adopted the game through acculturation.  Its impact was felt across both class and racial lines (although leagues segregated very early on to reflect the sensibilities of society) as the sport spread through the stadiums and sandlots of America.

In times of both calm and crisis the American public has turned to baseball for entertainment.  Its star players have become household names, and baseball’s imagery and language has become part of our national culture.   American biographer Gerald Early once remarked, “I enjoy the game… principally because it makes me feel American.  And I think there are only three things that America will be known for 2,000 yeas from now… the Constitution, jazz music, and baseball.”[3]  While baseball’s rules and scope have changed over the years, its cultural impact has remanded a constant.

Long before baseball became an organized sport in the 19th century, ball and bat games were played throughout the American Colonies. As early as 1773, Southern African Americans began playing ball games on Sundays, although participation in such games could lead to punishment.[4]  More commonly played in the North however, these games, referred to as “trap,” “townball,” or “base,” were largely informal with rules that varied depending on where they were played.   Teams usually played on a square field and all batted balls were considered in play (even balls that went backward).  The English game of Cricket was also frequently played in the United States throughout the Nineteenth Century.  While baseball has many similarities to cricket, early baseball has much more in common with the aforementioned games.  However, many of the skills transferred between both games, and often skilled players could excel at both.  Historical drawings and accounts show these games continued throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries.
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Tweaking Soliders: the Nazis and Methamphetamine

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As leader of the Third Reich, it is commonly known Adolf Hilter advocated for Lebensreform (life reform).  Chief among this belief was that members of the Aryan Race should abstain from drug and alcohol use in order to create a pure and strong race.  However, at the same time Lebensreform was being advocated by Hilter and party officials like Heinrich Himmler, Nazi military men were nonetheless being fed the methamphetamine Pervitin in massive quantities during World War II.

Referred to as “pilot’s salt” or “tank chocolate” by members of the Wehrmacht (German armed forces), Pervitin was seen as a wonder drug by officials who freely distributed it to military men.[1] The drug increased German soldiers’ alertness and endurance, and gave them confidence and euphoric feelings   No member of the Wehrmacht was immune from the drugs effects: pilots, infantrymen, and civil defense soldiers, were consuming large quantities of methamphetamine by order of the Nazi high command.

The use of amphetamine was not uncommon throughout industrialized countries during the 1930s and 40s.  Indeed, Dexedrine and other amphetamines would be given to allied pilots during the War to maintain alertness.  However, in the 1938, German paramedical company Temmler Werke began working on Pervitin, a new drug that was structurally different then previous “pep” pills on the market.  The Academy of Military Medicine in Berlin, decided to study methamphetamine to determine if it could be beneficial in combat situations.  In tests, the academy noticed that subjects dosed with Pervitin were able to perform better in mathematical and memory tests in a controlled environment.  As a result, 3 mg tablets of Pervitin were included in medical supplies for German military units during the invasion of Poland in 1939.[2]
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Defining Freedom of Expression and the Supreme Court (Part Three): Nixon, Obsenity, Adult Content, the Internet, and My Conclusions

This is part three of an examination of the limits of freedom of expression established by key Supreme Court decisions.  Please read the first part here and the second part here.

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Richard Nixon, who tried (in vain) to prevent the publishing of the Pentagon Papers by the New York Times.

Seven years after the Sullivan case, the New York Times found itself in another landmark case related to freedom of the press.  In 1971, the New York Times received classified intelligence that detailed American involvement and decision making in Vietnam from 1945-1967.  On June 13th of the same year, the New York Times published selections of the document in their Sunday edition.  Days later, the New York Times received a district court order to stop further publishing of the Pentagon Papers (similar requests were also made to the Washington Post, who also began publishing articles related to the papers).  The Nixon Administration felt that publishing the papers would interfere with national security interests. Despite the fact that many justices felt it would be against the nation’s best interest to allow publishing the papers, they ruled 6-3 in favor of the New York Times, allowing them to continue to publish the Pentagon Papers.[1] While the justices felt the articles could be damaging, they followed the precedent regarding prior restraint set in the Near case.  In writing his concurring opinion, Justice Potter stated that prior restraint of publications should be used only when it will “result in direct, immediate, and irreparable damage to our Nation or its people.”[2] Since there was no proof that anything of that nature would result, freedom of the press as guaranteed by the First Amendment trumped the Administration’s security concerns.

The Supreme Court has had several cases that have had to deal with obscenity and pornography.  While the court has been careful to not permit outright censorship, it has placed limits on the distribution of materials that have been deemed obscene. The courts first case involving pornography was Roth v. United States (1957).  The previous year, Samuel Roth was accused of mailing out obscene images as advertising for his book store.  While he was found guilty of a federal obscenity statue, Roth appealed his decision believing that it was a violation of his freedom of expression.  When his case was appealed to the Supreme Court, its ruling was combined with Alberts v. California (1957), a case where a book seller was arrested for selling obscene books.  The court ruled 6-3 in favor of the United States and California in both decisions.  In the majority opinion, Justice Brennan wrote that it was the opinion of the court that pornographic images and obscene material were not protected by either the freedom of speech nor press. Reiterating that the First Amendment had limitations, he stated lewd material is utterly without redeeming social importance” and wrote the definition of obscenity as “whether to the average person applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material is taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest.”[3]  Therefore, the decision of what was made obscene was declared as something that most people would find objectionable.  Sixteen years later, the U.S. Supreme Court would modify the definition of obscenity, but they would still keep the “contemporary community standards’ test to define what is or is not protected speech.
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Defining Freedom of Expression and the Supreme Court (Part Two): Fighting Words, Libel, Hustler Magazine, Public Schools and Symbolic Speech

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Jerry Falwell, who unsuccessfully attempted to sue Hustler Magazine in 1988, establishing that parody is protected speech.

This is part two of an examination of the limits of freedom of expression established by key Supreme Court decisions.  Please read the first part here.

Over two decades after the Schenk decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a case relating to “fighting words” – words spoken at close range in intent to provoke physical action.  In November 1941, a man by the name of Walter Chaplinsky was arrested for calling a Rochester, New Hampshire police officer a “damned fascist” and a racketeer on a public street in close proximity to the officer.[1]  While he was fined and not imprisoned, Chaplinsky appealed the ruling on the grounds that his rights to freedom of speech were violated.  In Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942) the Supreme Court reached a unanimous decision upholding the New Hampshire law. The Supreme Court established a precedent that speech, “likely to provoke the average person to retaliation, and thereby cause a breach of peace”[2] is not constitutionally protected.  While freedom of speech is hallmark to any democracy, the Supreme Court has determined that fighting words do not need to be constitutionally protected because they can potentially bring disorder to society.

In the turbulent 1960s, several important cases involving the freedom of expression were appealed and argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.  In New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), an elected police commissioner sued the New York Times for an advertisement in their paper that was critical of police in Montgomery, Alabama.  The advertisement made a series of statements about police treatment of civil rights leaders, some of which were not factual.  Despite the fact that he was never mentioned by name, L.B. Sullivan felt the article libeled him because to be critical of the police was to, in turn, be critical of the commissioner.  A case without precedent, Sullivan’s lawsuit against the New York Times traveled all the way to the Supreme Court.

Sullivan’s lawsuit was symbolic of something much greater at the time.  “Many Southerners bitterly resented northern efforts to promote civil rights of African American in the South.  To many in Alabama, the New York Times symbolized all that they disliked.”[3]  Rather than have the case tried in New York (as that is where the New York Times was based), Sullivan had the case tried in the Alabama Supreme Court.  Sullivan was awarded a sum of a half million dollars based on Alabama’s libel law.  Disagreeing with the ruling, the New York Times appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court – an unprecedented action at that time because state law had always handled libel cases.[4]

Unlike the Alabama State Supreme Court, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in the New York Time’s favor.  In the eyes of the justices, the factual errors that were made in the advertisement were of “mere negligence and not actual malice.”[5]  Their ruling set two precedents.  First, the Supreme Court set a precedent that in order to be guilty of libeling public figures, there had to be a deliberate attempt to publish falsehoods or show a “reckless” disregard for the truth. Second, overturning the Alabama Supreme Court, the U.S. Supreme Court Justices applied the First and Fourteenth Amendments (capitalize?) to determine that states cannot award damages to a public official without proving “actual malice.”
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Trading Flags: The Shifting Loyalty of Jubal A. Early

Jubal A. EarlyThe year 1861 divided the nation and a great many men were forced to make the incredibly difficult choice as to which allegiance was strongest in their hearts. Men across the country made their choices for numerous reasons such as devotion to the Union, belief in the Constitution, defense of their State, the support of the peculiar institution, among others. As we look at Jubal A. Early, he represents such a man torn between two allegiances. A man who in 1860-1 argued vehemently against secession in the state of Virginia, yet ended up forsaking his military oaths of defense of the country.1 Here was a man who twice left his comfortable civilian life to take up arms for the Republic; the epitome of the American citizen-soldier so glorified during the Revolutionary War, turning his back on the flag he bravely defended only to raise the flag of the newly founded Confederacy.2 What could make a man trade flags by resigning from one military to join another?

Early was raised in the state of Virginia and therefore exposed to slavery throughout his life. Although there is no record of Early himself owning slaves (other than perhaps a servant) his extended family owned numerous slaves as part of their holdings throughout Virginia. He held that the blacks were property and that there could be no abolition of slavery because the Constitution guaranteed to protect an individuals property. “He believed the government established by the Constitution protected liberty and the sanctity of private property, allowing Americans, whether above or below the Mason and Dixon’s Line, to prosper.”3 Along this line of argument he believed that every state had decided for itself whether to be “slave” or “free” at the time of its inception and at the signing of the Constitution there didn’t appear to be any obstinate hurdles regarding the issue of slavery. “Slavery was a domestic institution and should not be subject to interference from the North in the form of ‘moral suasion, legislative enactment, or physical force’.”4 Despite being a centralist in regards to slavery, equally disliking fire-eaters and abolitionists, Early felt that the institution of slavery should not be touched by meddling Northerners.

A West Point graduate from the class of 1837, Jubal A. Early did not strike many as a commanding battlefield figure. Seeing no future in the military, Early resigned from the United States Army just a year after graduating. However short and unrewarding his early military career, Early experienced some fighting against the Seminoles in Florida.5 After his short military service, Early spent the better part of the next 15 years practicing law in his home state of Virginia. This time was broken with another short return to military action during the Mexican-American War from 1847-1848. “Impelled by his sense of patriotic submission, he accepted a commission as major of the First Regiment of Virginia Volunteers” to fight against a Mexican foe who sought to deprive the Texans of their rights.6
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