Earl Averill – Show Me the Money

Sometimes history shows us that everything old is new again, and that the roots of what we consider new issues or developments actually go far back in time. This is certainly true in baseball in the case of an old ballplayer named Earl Averill. He's interesting because at a crucial point in his career he took a gutsy stance on a salary issue which led to a proposed change in baseball's policy regarding player sales. This change was never adopted, otherwise baseball's subsequent labour strife might have been less costly. Serious baseball fans will know about Averill, or at least have heard of him, but others maybe not. He played a long time ago - from 1929-41, mostly with the Cleveland Indians, not exactly a glamorous team back then. He was very good, and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1975 by the Veterans Committee. He was kind of the Bernie Williams of his day: a well-rounded, smart, graceful center fielder who could also really hit. His career didn't last as long as Bernie's and he didn't have the fortune of playing on great teams like Williams did, but otherwise they were similarly versatile and productive players. Averill was the best center fielder in the American League, and maybe in all of baseball from 1930-35, when along came Joe DiMaggio. He hit for average (.318 lifetime) and had power (238 home runs, 401 doubles and a .533 slugging average). He didn't strike out much and walked enough that his career on-base-percentage was .395 which meant he scored well more [...]

Bitchin’ Pitchin’ Not Always Bewitchin’

In the years since I wrote this piece about the underachievement of great pitching staffs, the starting pitching of the Philadelphia Phillies from 2010-11 became another case in point.  They assembled a starting rotation that many saw as invincible and was described in some circles as maybe the best ever, consisting of four aces - Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels - plus some other decent starters in Vance Worley and Joe Blanton.  They didn't manage to beat the Giants in the 2010 NLCS though and in 2011 were undone even earlier in the NLDS when Halladay lost a great pitching duel 1-0, to Chris Carpenter of the Cardinals in the deciding fifth game.  This year's Blue Jays were thought to have put together a pretty vaunted starting staff themselves, but so far their pitchers have underperformed to such an extent that they can't even be considered yet as an example of this odd syndrome of failure.                                                  ******** "In baseball, you don't know nothin'. " - Yogi Berra "Good pitching always stops good hitting, and vice versa." - Casey Stengel The above famous quotes serve to underscore something odd I've noticed over the years, namely that great and deep pitching staffs have quite an awful record in post-season play. I first noticed this with the Baltimore Orioles in the 1970s, who were pitching-rich, to say the least. Their 1971 staff had four 20-game winners : Dave more [...]

Zoot, Al & The Mick

This is one of the very first baseball stories I ever wrote and it has jazz content too.  I've been wanting to post it for a while and thanks to the miracles of modern digital technology, I was able to retrieve it from a dusty old email archive it had been sitting in for about four years.  I'll admit I've taken some liberties here in filling in the details as best I can; drinking was most definitely involved in the recounting of the versions of this story told to me and my memory of them is a little dim as this all happened at least thirty years ago. Zoot Sims first told me this story about Mickey Mantle around 1981 and it was later confirmed to me by Jake Hanna, who was at the Half Note as a listener on the night described below.  I didn't get to know Al Cohn well until after Zoot died in 1984, but Al told me this one too, along with many more about Zoot and others.  I can't begin to tell you what an honour and pleasure it was to play with these three great musicians and how entertaining it was to hang out with them off the bandstand.  They provided me with some of my best laughs and fondest memories and I miss them each and every day.                                                *************** I first read about this celebrated ballgame in a collection of Baseball Digest stories - you know, those "gee-whiz, my greatest thrill as a Yankee" jobs.  In the Digest version, an "ailing and feverish" Mickey Mantle came more [...]

What’s In A Name?

The following is kind of a funny story about the production of TEST OF TIME, the CD by Mike Murley's erstwhile trio (a.k.a. Murley-Bickert-Wallace) which just won the Juno Award in the "Best Traditional Jazz" category, whatever that means.  (It used to sort of mean jazz involving straw hats, banjos and/or clarinets, street names from New Orleans and old drunk guys, but I think these days it mostly means jazz with songs you might actually know and maybe even recognize.  Or maybe now, 'traditional' means jazz recorded more than ten years ago by a band that doesn't quite exist anymore, as on this disc.  Your guess is as good as mine.) Before getting to the story though, I'd like to take this opportunity to thank all and sundry for their good wishes and in turn to congratulate my fellow-winners Mike Murley, Ed Bickert, and especially our good friend Barry Elmes, who as engineer, producer and " jazz archaeologist" had an awful lot to do with the release of this record.  Winning a Juno for music recorded fourteen years ago is one of the more unexpected but pleasant developments in my admittedly checkered career and is proof that if you manage to stay in the jazz game long enough, you, a) - end up playing almost everywhere with just about anybody you could imagine and, b) - are bound to see, hear and sometimes even smell some mighty unexpected things along the way. Anyway, on to the story: In late September of last year, Mike Murley and I were in Antigonish, N.S. with more [...]

My Friend Flicker

I just had my first "Annual April Flicker Sighting" while at my smoking haunt on the grounds of Osgoode Hall.  For about two weeks every April the past five or six years, a flicker shows up here and hangs out on the far side of the lawn near the gardener's ramp eating ants out of the ground - poke, poke, poke with his beak - then scurries back into the cover of the shrubs lest he be seen.  It's a yearly rite of passage, a sure sign that spring is here and all is (mostly) right with the world. Flickers are my favourite bird for a number of reasons, having to do with their muted but splendid appearance, their unusual, shy behaviour and the memory they bring of my father, who was a big birder.  I even like the name - flicker - as in, "You brought her, you flick her." It's funny that they're so timid, because they're a good size (bigger than a robin) and are so well turned out.  I always think of them as being designed by an English tailor, maybe Saville Row.  Their back looks like a tweed jacket - sandy brown with dark cross-bars - sort of a herringbone. The breast is an off-white polka-dot shirt with black speckles and they have that black crescent around the neck that looks for all the world like an ascot. (As my father used to say whenever he saw anyone wearing one, "That poor fella has his ass caught around his neck." His favourite line from The Bible was when somebody-or-other "tied his ass to a tree and walked into Bethlehem."  Man, what a card he was, I never even more [...]

Wherefore Art Thou, Global Warming?

So, what have we done to deserve this miserable dreck outside?  I mean, could God just FOAD with the snow and ice already?  Last night I watched the compressed replay of the Jays' afternoon game in Detroit and you could see the player's breath, the umpires and coaches were wearing mittens and toques for Chrissakes. Are we trapped in some kind of Ingmar Bergman movie here?  Like maybe "The Seventh Snow", "Frozen Wild Strawberries" or "The Virgin Ice-Spring"?  I feel like getting up a game of chess out on the street with a homeless guy wearing a cowl and holding a shovel, just for the comic relief. It's enough to make you write bad poetry, as in: Ice, falling from the sky onto my head Nice, but only if we were dead Lice, would be better than this dread, of Rice, tossed at a wedding held instead Of in a church, in an Arctic snow-bed.                                                **** Or maybe I could listen to some Jan Garbarek records just to cheer myself up, but fortunately I don't have any. (For those lucky enough to be unfamiliar with Garbarek, he's a tenor and soprano saxophonist from that fun-filled place called Norway.  He's known for his extremely stark, razor's-edge, plaintive tone and relentlessly bleak and suicidal musical outlook.  He's kind of the Bergman of the saxophone and he would probably love this weather, the arsehole.  His music has been described as "fiordic jazz" and is about more [...]

Full Moon, Empty Arms, Blown Mind

It was pretty common practice in the 1930s and '40s to simply borrow a famous (or even obscure) theme from a classical composition and turn it into a popular song, its composer being conveniently dead and thus incapable of suing or collecting royalties.  The music business powers of the day weren't too shy about this kind of thing (they're even worse now) and it's surprising how many of these hybrids have entered the jazz repertoire and are trotted out now and then, often thanks to some good records of them made over the years.  Most of these versions have been instrumental, a good thing because, trust me, you don't want to hear the words that were dreamed up for most of them, they're pretty drecky.  It's not like Lorenz Hart or Cole Porter were writing the lyrics, they both had bigger fish to fry, but their musical content is usually strong enough. For example, the old spiritual "Goin' Home" is based on one of the movements (I'd tell you which one if I knew or cared) of Anton Dvorak's famous "New World Symphony" - Czech it out.  Actually it's funny, because the main minor theme (notice how I didn't say "major minor theme") that opens this opus always reminds me of the first few notes of "My Funny Valentine", if played by a German marching band with a pole stuck way up its ass.  (Come to think of it, all German marching bands sound like they have a pole shoved pretty far up there.)  There are plenty of good jazz recordings of "Goin' Home" - by Art Tatum, Jack Teagarden, more [...]