How Duke Snider Burst My Bubble (and What I Learned about the Birds and the Bees)

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Will Rogers said “a difference of opinion is what makes horse racing and missionaries.”

But, as a child, I thought that there were certain things with which everyone would agree, where no difference of opinion was possible.

Like the idea that playing baseball was the best imaginable way to make a living and the dream of every red-blooded American male.

Duke Snider taught me otherwise. It was a hard lesson that I learned some time in the 1950s, simply by watching a TV interview of the gifted ball player.

It must have been about the time in 1956 when his infamous article in Collier’s magazine appeared: “I Play Baseball for Money — Not Fun,” co-written with Roger Kahn.

But I didn’t know anything about that. All I knew was that in the middle of the aforementioned interview, when the admiring TV personality questioned him, Edwin Donald “Duke” Snider said that he would rather be on his avocado farm in California than playing center field for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

What! What did he say? And, by the way, what’s an avocado? Here was this handsome, power hitting, left-handed batsman, both graceful and swift, doing something I could only wish I might do; and what did he say?

How can a man I thought to be a hero, a member of the World Champion Dodgers, a teammate of Jackie Robinson, want to be a farmer? Heck, is a farmer and prefers it to playing ball. How is this possible?

As a little kid in Chicago in the ’50s, I had never actually seen a farm. I knew vegetables came out of cans and never thought very much about the people who actually grew them and put them into cans.

In fact, the only time that the question of farming ever came up in conversation around my house, was when I asked my dad where I came from.

Yes, the sex question.

My dad’s answer was simple. He said, “I planted the seed.”

I was badly thrown by the answer, led in the direction of corn and beans and all sorts of things that presumably were grown by farmers, along with small boys.

It took me years to recover from this misinformation and probably delayed my sexual development by a full decade.

Later in his life, Duke Snider admitted that his attitude wasn’t always the best. His New York Times obituary of February 28, 2011 quoted him as saying, “I had to learn that every day wasn’t a bed of roses, and that took some time. I would sulk. I’d have a pity party for myself.”

That summer afternoon of the televised interview I saw must have been one of those days.

I guess the Duke didn’t care for the “boos” he sometimes received, occasionally unfavorable newspaper commentary, the pressure, the travel, and the sheer grind of a long season.

But, I suppose there was a worthy lesson in Duke’s complaint to the local sportscaster.  In fact, there were a few lessons:

  • Make the most of every day.
  • Accept the up-and-down nature of life.
  • Remember that there might be a lot of people who only they wish they could be as well-situated as you are.
  • If you are a farmer, check carefully before turning on the threshing machine, lest you injure a baby boy.
  • And, maybe most important of all: be careful what you say. Kids are listening.

What Elite Athletes Know (and What They Can Teach the Rest of Us)

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It is easy enough to hold a low opinion of the athlete. Society is prone to stereotype, and the athlete easily becomes a “dumb jock.” He is the one, says commonly accepted “wisdom,” who can only get into college because of his physical talents, who will amount to nothing after his athletic gifts are gone, and who must be managed by an agent without whom he would be lost.

As the old Gershwin song says, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

Let’s start with what it takes to be a successful athlete. There is actually a joke about this, but it pertains to classical music. A young man from out-of-town is walking down the streets of New York. He stops a stranger, presumably a New York native, and asks: “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”

“Practice, practice,” says the New Yorker.

So it is with the athlete. He learns to practice, improve, and practice some more, until he gets it right. Beyond getting it right, to the point of nearly obsessive perfection.

Elite competitors also know that they must prepare the same way that they intend to play. Not just going through the motions, but with the same mindset and physical intensity that they will bring to the game. It is well-known that the Chicago Bulls dynasty of the Jordan era was created, in part, by Michael Jordan’s relentless competitive demands on his teammates in practice. If they could take him on with even a small measure of success, their chances against the rest of the league were quite good.

Have you ever watched an NBA player shoot free throws? He does it identically every time. The number of times he dribbles the ball, the moment when he takes his breath, the time he takes to ready himself, and the way that he shoots the ball are always the same; the product of thousands of repetitions during practice.

This dedication extends to stretching, running, and weight training. A look at the bodies of today’s athletes creates a striking contrast with the physiques of their predecessors 50 years ago. The muscle and strength do not come without great effort and regular training. If you have ever lifted weights or done scheduled aerobic exercise, you have at least some idea of what is required.

Then there is the purely mental part of the game. Having the strength of character not to be intimidated by your opposition. And the concentration to ignore the crowd and stay within oneself, doing what one has prepared to do, not thinking about the last play, but being “in the moment;” not panicking, but reacting instantaneously to the movements of the opposition, your teammates, and the ball.

The athlete, too, must learn quickly and forget quickly.

When he makes an error, as all athletes do, he needs to realize what he has done wrong so as not to do it again. But, before the day is out and before the game is over, he must put his failure out of his mind, relegate that setback to the shadows, and prepare for whatever comes next: the next play, the next contest, the next turning point. To keep thinking about the shortfall will undermine his confidence and reduce his capacity to function at his best when the same situation arises again.

Imagine a relief pitcher in baseball as he enters today’s game — the “closer” who is expected to end the enemy’s rally and hold the lead in the contest — thinking about how he lost the game for his team the day before. If he does that, he will let himself and his team down once again.

The performers’ focus must be extraordinary. Indeed, when they are “in the zone,” they have been known to so “tune out” the sound of the crowd, that overwhelming cheers (when they finally do break through) can startle them, bringing them back to the amphitheater from the smaller arena of man against man. They had lost awareness that they were in a stadium full of observers.

Moreover, in the world of “biggest-strongest-fastest,” one cannot allow oneself to become too high or too low. The best athletes are characterized by emotional control, so that they permit only brief enthusiasms and try to limit any tendency toward dejection. Opening themselves to the more routine vacillation of mood known to most of the rest of us can undermine their ability to perform. You cannot easily, for example, hit a baseball well if you are too excited, or too “down.”

Diet also comes into play, especially in activities like body building, where what you put into your body affects your ability to build muscle and highlight the definition of those muscles so as to make them stand out. For a serious body builder who avoids banned substances, the severity of his weight training is matched by his ability to eat differently than all the rest of us do. He stays away from foods that will compromise the development of his physique and its appearance.

My brother Jack, an amateur body builder who has won numerous competitive awards in his age bracket, tells me that his training routine typically includes five days per week of work with weights for 1.25 hours per day. His low fat-high protein diet requires that 50% of his calories come from protein, 30% from carbohydrates, and 20% from fats. He drinks a gallon of water a day. Within 10 weeks of his competition, he ups his protein to 60% and lowers carbohydrate sources to 20%.

Actual meal choices are restricted to the following:

  • protein: fish, lean red meat, chicken breast, turkey breast, cottage cheese
  • fats: flaxseed oil, olive oil, fats from lean meats/foods
  • carbs: sweet potatoes, grapefruit, white rice, oatmeal
  • vegetables: lettuce, cucumber, broccoli, cauliflower, string beans

Clearly, extraordinary discipline is involved.

In addition, elite competitors ignore minor injuries, and sometimes ones not so minor; they must be played through for the good of the team. No wonder that the “athlete’s creed,” involves “rubbing some dirt on (the wound) and getting back into the game.”

The champion hungers for formidable competition. He does not want the contest to be too easy, a challenger who does not test his skills. For him, the point is to be the best among the best, not a big fish in a small pond.

Philosophers of antiquity used the jock as an example of what other philosophers and their students should strive for. They cited the man of physical culture for his excellence, observed him striving to improve himself, and advised the rest of us to perfect the skills of the mind just as the athlete seeks to perfect the body. With respect to the challenges of living, they exhorted the novice philosopher to behave like the wrestler who, when thrown to the mat, gets up instead of giving up, and returns to the battle.

Apart from the possibility of celebrity and fantastic wealth, the athlete profits from the confidence that he has earned by his attitude and effort. He thrives on the exhilaration of a body that responds to his wishes, is finely and precisely tuned and honed, and is not an encumbrance but a tool to achieve his goals.

He is in fact, a model for excellence in living.

No wonder that the rest of us can’t help but watch him.

The top image — Gilmar Catching a Ball — comes from the 1958 World Cup Final. Source: Scanpix (svt.se) (Public Domain) via Wikimedia Commons.

The bottom image is of Jack Stein.

Performers, Priests, and Other Intermediaries

Do you remember your childhood friend, the one who knew the girl you fancied, the one who was the intermediary between you and “your heart’s desire,” who let you know if she was equally fond of you, and who passed messages and notes between the two of you? And do you remember when you asked one parent to “run interference” with the other, to shield you from the blow or scolding or grounding that you were afraid you would receive if your defender couldn’t soften the heart of the other? These were probably your first experiences with the role of an intermediary.

Putting these things in the terms of childhood memory will, I hope, help you to recall just how important that mediator was, how much you counted on her or him to put things right for you, how much dependency was involved, and how grateful you were if she was able to do the job of advocating for you efficiently and well.

As adults we still use these kinds of mediators, intermediaries, or advocates. Lawyers “make our case,” accountants talk to the IRS on our behalf, reference persons write letters or recommendations to potential employers or universities, agents negotiate salaries for us, and a marital therapist tries to help two people repair their relationship.

But the intermediaries whom we most esteem, I think, are those that perform a public form of intercession. I am speaking of musicians, actors, and clergymen.

What do I mean by this? Let’s start with musicians. They take the printed note on the page of music paper and give it life—sing it, play it, form it in the way that they understand the notation. The players interpret the music. It is said that they “recreate” it, but truly, it does not exist except as an abstraction until they begin to perform it; we do not hear it until they begin to “make” the music. They are the intermediaries between the composer (who might be long dead) and us.

So too, actors and actresses. They give life to the playwright’s or script writer’s words. These players shape the words, give them emphasis and color, drama and intensity. And they are the carriers of the playwright’s meaning, his advocates and his intermediaries in the communication he hopes to bring to us, the audience.

Clergymen and clergywomen serve much the same purpose, only with religious texts. If you believe that they serve a higher being, then you also believe that they mediate between God and man. Their sermons, if eloquently delivered, are no less moving than the sounds of stirring music or the voice that an actor gives to Shakespeare’s lines.

We esteem these mediators, in part, because (at their best) they reveal to us a higher, loftier, more intense and creatively imagined way of being; they move us to tears or to excitement or to hope; they quicken life, stimulate thought, open our hearts, teach us, and, if we are ready, change us.

Given the effect that they have on us, these mediators receive our appreciation and, sometimes, adulation. Indeed, because the composer or playwright or screen writer has given over the task of performance to these people (while he is in the shadows, even if alive), we can lose sight of the author of the creative work being presented to us on stage. And, so too, the recreative artist (the actor or musician) can get a bit too carried away with his own self-importance. Indeed, it is rare for the great conductors, singers, actors, violinists, and actresses of the world not to be at least a little full of themselves.

One who was not, however, is the subject of an excellent new biography: Serving Genius: Carlo Maria Giulini by Thomas Saler.

Giulini was an Italian symphony and opera conductor who lived from 1914 to 2005. His humility in the face of the geniuses he served, that is, the great composers, would have been for nothing if not for his own talent in giving life to their music. Giulini felt that his role was a small one, as the servant of these great men, as the mediator of something much bigger, more important, and more lasting than himself. Giulini was a man both great and good, an extraordinarily rare combination. I had the good luck to hear him perform dozens of times and to interview him once (and, in the interest of full disclosure, I was interviewed for Mr. Saler’s book).

Giulini took his role as the link between composer and listener very seriously; indeed, the responsibility to the composer, to do his art justice, was a weighty one to this enormously conscientious man. Giulini gave the concert that celebrated the liberation of Rome from fascist control in 1944 during World War II. Soon after, he was asked to play Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, pieces he admired but did not feel ready to perform. Pressured to do so in a concert that was well received, Giulini nonetheless felt he had let down both the composer and the audience by playing these pieces before he was convinced of how to best recreate every note. It was 22 years before he finally felt that conviction and again conducted any work of Bach.

As quoted in the biography, Robert Marsh said of the conductor, “He is one of the most completely civilized men I have ever met, one who can command without every raising his voice, who wins and holds your loyalty by the nobility of his character. If music is to lead us to the fullest awareness of humanistic values, men such as Giulini will be the models we must follow.”

Intermediaries. They mean a great deal to us.

As you can tell, Giulini did to me.