Songs In the Key of Three

Since Ed Bickert retired from playing guitar around 2002, his place in a couple of bands I play in - the Mike Murley Trio and the Barry Elmes Quintet - has been taken by Reg Schwager. It speaks volumes for Reg that these were quite seamless transitions; replacing Ed's unique playing would normally be impossible and generally, his absence has left a sizeable hole on the Canadian jazz scene at large. The Elmes Quintet has released several records with Reg playing guitar, but Murley's trio hasn't managed this yet, despite a pass at a live recording at Mezzetta several years ago. This was a hasty one-off which yielded some material that was good, but not quite good enough to release. Reg does appear on Murley's CD The Melody Lingers On, but that wasn't just the trio, it features Guido Basso and Tara Davidson as guests along with a chamber ensemble of strings. Typically, Reg has been pretty quiet on the subject, but Murley and I both agree that a recording by the trio with him is long overdue, especially when you consider how consistently well the group with Reg has played over the last eleven years. It's criminal really, but that's how it goes sometimes in jazz, people get busy with various other gigs, bands or projects and before you know it, ten years have gone by and you still don't have a CD out. The odd circumstance of an old recording by the first trio surfacing and being released recently also set things back unexpectedly on this front. A move to correct this more [...]

Don’t Look Now, But….

Most baseball fans know that Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers did something last year that no ballplayer has since 1967. He won the batting Triple Crown, which means he lead his league in batting average (.330), home runs (44) and runs-batted-in (RBI), with 139. Oddly enough his teammate Justin Verlander won the pitching Triple Crown - leading in wins, ERA and strikeouts - in 2011. This is not talked about nearly as much and for good reason, the pitching version is a lot easier to manage, a lot more commonplace. The hitting trifecta is extremely hard to pull off, but in the past hitters managed it now and then. In fact, the year before Carl Yastrzemski last turned the trick in 1967 with the Red Sox, Frank Robinson also managed it with the Orioles in his first season in the American League, odd. Nobody has won it in the National League since Joe "Ducky" Medwick with the Cards in 1937, a drought of 75 years and counting. The fact nobody won it for 45 years drew a lot of commentary as to the reasons why, whether somebody would ever do it again, who it would likely be and yadda, yadda. A few players have come close recently - Albert Pujols, Joey Votto, Carlos Gonzalez, Manny Ramirez, Ryan Braun, Matt Kemp, Cabrera himself a few other times. One of the theories put forth about the drought was general, but made sense - that, as any field improves and grows stronger, it becomes harder and harder for one individual to dominate it - this could certainly hold true in baseball. Cabrera more [...]

Birds, Songs, Memory and Coincidence

One of the perks of working at Osgoode Hall is seeing the grounds in spring and summer, all the beautiful trees and gardens maintained by two very hard-working women. There are about five blossoming crab-apple trees that recently came into spectacular bloom and on Friday morning I saw a flash of orange fly up into one of them. I thought "Baltimore Oriole" right away, but it happened so fast I wasn't sure. So I walked over and stood under the tree, pouring rain and all, peering up through the branches like a gawking idiot. Which is pretty much what I am. Sure enough, there were two orioles, orange as pumpkins, flitting around in the lush pink blossoms. It makes sense, orioles have a sweet tooth and they're likely getting some nectar here, so maybe they'll hang out for a few days. You may have gathered that apart from jazz and baseball, I'm also pretty crazy about birds and songs, which kind of go together. If I'd been with Frank Sinatra and the rest of "The Rat Pack" back in the day (I wish), their motto might have been "Let's get some birds, baseball, bebop, booze and broads and be somebody." I can't tell you what a lovely thrill and surprise it was to see these birds like this, but I'll try. The last time I remember seeing an oriole was in the backyard of my parent's first house in Scarborough, which had several big old elm trees. I have a tiny but crystal-clear memory of looking up through the elm branches one summer day and seeing one perched high up there, the sun more [...]

Bearing Up In the Depression

Given their dismal record of losing and being almost continual baseball chumps from 1946 to this very day, it might strain belief to suggest the Chicago Cubs had a second decade of success nearly equalling that of the 1904-13 teams. Nevertheless, in the Depression years of 1929-38, the Cubs came close to matching the great run of their predecessors. True, the later teams didn't win any championships or nearly as many games, didn't concentrate four pennants in a five-year period. But their record in terms of league-standing over a decade was the same, if more diffuse - they won four pennants (one every three years in 1929, 1932, 1935, 1938) and finished in second or third place the other years. The Cubs from this period have long interested me, they provide a lively and fascinating window into the baseball of that time, which was eventful, exciting, marked by colourful personalities and intense competition. These teams were packed with good and great players, some famous, others less so. There were three regulars who would go into the Hall of Fame - catcher Gabby Hartnett, right-fielder Kiki Cuyler and second baseman Billy Herman. Many believe that another regular - third baseman Stan Hack - also deserves this honour. Apart from these, there were four other Hall-of-Famers who played short stints with the team - second baseman Rogers Hornsby (1929-32), right-fielder Chuck Klein (1934-35), pitchers Burleigh Grimes (1932-33) and Dizzy Dean (1938-41.) They had some real characters more [...]

Bearing Up

I've been reading The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract off and on for over two years now and it just keeps on giving. It's not the kind of book you read from cover to cover, it's far too big for that. It has to be digested in small portions, but, even so, I'm still coming across things I've missed. It continues to yield surprising and thought-provoking information, such as the following from a short piece about the Chicago Cubs of the early 1900s. The 1906 Cubs won 116 games, still a record for wins in a season, equaled by the 2001 Seattle Mariners, albeit playing a longer, 162-game schedule. The Mariners' record was 116-46, the '06 Cubs were an astonishing 116-36 in 152 games. (There was a 154-game schedule back then, but missed games were often not made up unless necessary.) The 1907 Cubs won 107 games; combined with the '06 record, the 223 wins is a record over two years. The '08 Cubs won 99 games and the 322 wins 1906-08 is a record over three years. The pattern continues - they won 426 games from 1906-09 and 530 from 1906-10, both records for a four- and five-year span. They won 622 games over the six years 1905-10, still by far a record. The only team to come close to this was the Cardinals from 1941-46, with 606 wins. The Cubs won 715 games over seven years (1904-10) and 807 over an eight-year period (1904-11), you guessed it, both records. (The Yankees won 799 games in the eight years between 1936-43.) The record-setting string continues with 898 wins 1904-12 more [...]

Winging It in Buffalo

I wrote this after first making a baseball trip to Buffalo in August of 2011.  With the Blue Jays' AAA farm team now located there, the piece has new relevance, so I thought I'd revive it.  Besides, given how awful the big club has been so far, Buffalo may be the nearest place for Toronto fans to actually see something like major-league baseball being played.  While thousands of Canadian baseball fans made the pilgrimage to Cooperstown yesterday to witness the Hall of Fame inductions of Roberto Alomar and Pat Gillick, two friends and I made a baseball trek ourselves on Sunday. Ted O'Reilly, Sam Levene and I shuffled off to Buffalo to take in a Bisons' ball game. Ted and I have been friends for years and he was the main instigator of the trip, put out the initial feelers, did the driving and knows the lay of the land, having made this trip a few times. For this I'm grateful - thanks Ted - it was a great time. High among the pleasures of the day was getting to know Sam Levene better. He and I met once very briefly in a jazz club years ago and we've been back and forth on email of late, but didn't really know one another. As soon as I set eyes on him, I thought "Phil Rizzuto". Like the Scooter, Sam is a small, cheerful, gentle man with wavy grey hair and glasses, though he isn't given to calling anyone a "huckleberry". Sam knows his baseball and jazz, is soft-spoken, good company and a veteran of baseball road trips. Once a year, he and some friends have set out by more [...]

Show Me the Way To Go Home

On the subway the other day I saw someone wearing one of those sweatshirts that say "Member of the All-Harvard Drinking Team". It got me to thinking of how many drinking men there have been in baseball through the years, so I thought I'd put together an All-Star team of the game's notable boozers. Generally, it seems that excessive drinking was more widespread in the past, and since professional baseball began around 1860 or so it has always reflected American life as a whole. Imagine society back then, with far fewer entertainment and recreational options, far less information on issues like health and well-being, sanitation or medicine. Consider that commercial spirits were being mass-produced and distributed for the first time then, so they were widely available and cheap. Throw in the horror shows of the Civil War and its fallout, sweatshop working conditions in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, a few disease and flu epidemics, two World Wars sandwiched around the Great Depression, the development of nuclear arms, the onset of the Cold War and other fun stuff. I'm not trying to come off as some kind of Temperance League Herbert Marcuse here or anything, I'm just saying that it was little wonder that people by and large were hitting the bottle with a vengeance back then. I know I would have. In fact, just writing about this makes me feel like having a belt ......aahhh, that's much better, thanks. I get the feeling that early baseball was basically a diversion to more [...]

Staff Meeting

  This old music joke was reprinted in an English jazz mag I subscribe to, I read it with my coffee this morning and I thought you all might get a laugh out of it. It mostly works because 'a fifth' is an old-school jazz musician's term for a 40-ouncer of booze. Eddie Condon, the guitarist and dispenser of trenchant jazz wit once said the following to explain the difference between modern jazz and his preferred brand of trad-jazz - "We don't flat our fifths, we drink 'em."  Anyway, here's the joke:   C, E-flat and G go into a bar. The bartender says, "Sorry, but we don't serve minors." So E-flat leaves, and C and G have an open fifth between them. After a few drinks, the fifth is diminished, and G is out flat. F comes in and tries to augment the situation, but isn't sharp enough. D enters and heads straight for the loo, saying, "Excuse me, I'll just be a second." Then A comes in, but the bartender is not convinced that this relative of C is not a minor. The bartender notices B-flat hiding at the end of the bar and says, "Get out! You're the seventh minor I've found in this bar tonight." D-flat arrives looking quite handsome and the bartender decides he's not the best-looking guy he's ever seen, but a close second. E-flat comes back later in a three-piece suit with nicely shined shoes. The bartender says, "You're looking sharp tonight. Come on in, this could be a major development." Sure enough, E-flat soon takes off his suit and everything else and is au natural. Eventually more [...]

Bobby Estalella : Passing Through Shades of Gray

  Many are familiar with songwriter Dave Frishberg and his baseball songs, the most celebrated of which is "Van Lingle Mungo". Those who haven't heard it, should, it's a delightful masterpiece. The lyrics are all old ballplayer's names, arranged so artfully and rhythmically so as to become poetry, with the pitcher's name Van Lingle Mungo repeated throughout the song as a kind of haunting refrain and link. Being a retro-maniac, a mental collector of old ballplayers' names, I was familiar with most of the players in the song the first time I heard it, but there were four names that I didn't know very well : Eddie Basinski, Danny Gardella, Augie Bergamo and Bob Estalella. None of these guys was really a notable player, at least part of the reason they're in the song is that their five-syllable names fit the lilting metric requirements of Frishberg's bossa nova rhythm. In fact Estalella was always known as "Bobby", but Frishberg shortens it to "Bob" to keep the five syllables intact. I decided to look these guys up (as Casey Stengel would have put it), they're all in the Baseball Encyclopedia. Three of them had very short, wartime careers and are justly obscure. The exception is Bobby Estalella, (pronounced Esta-LAY-ah), who had a longer and very interesting career indeed. First though, the other guys : Eddie Basinski was a back-up middle infielder who played with Brooklyn 1944-45 and Pittsburgh in 1947. Altogether he played 203 games, with a batting average of .244. Augie more [...]

Burrowing Teeny-Bopper Ear-Worms

   On Saturday night after an all-day visit, my wife Anna and I dropped our daughter-in-law Sarah and one-year old grandson Charlie off at their place in the west end. We were tired but in a great mood, they're just so much fun to hang out with and Charlie has all kinds of new stuff going on. He's walking now (kinda like Frankenstein sometimes) and has a lot of funny faces, some new laughs and games. He's saying a few words, but seems to understand everything that's said, which is a little scary. The other night Anna said "Granna has to put on her shoes" and Charlie went over, got them and brought them to her, I swear to God. On the way back home, my mistress of schlock Anna had an AM oldies station on in the car and an old tune came on that got our attention right away because it started with just drums, playing the basic rock-beat that every guy I knew in Grade 6 tried to play, either on the drums or in the air. You know the one : Boom Ksshhh, de-Boom Boom Ksshhh.  Boom-Boom Ksshhh, de-Booma-Loom Ksshhh. The rest of the band came in, a cheesy Farfisa organ sound in the mix - don't get me wrong, used properly like this, cheesy Farfisa organ sounds are perfectly fine with me. The boy singer entered : "I went to a da-aannce the o-otherrr night, I saw a girl the-ere who looked outta sight." OK, OK, not exactly Wordsworth I admit, but hey - boy or girl - when you were 13 or 14, going to a dance and seeing somebody who looked outta sight was pretty much what life was more [...]