THE SPORTS PHILOSOPHER: ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy….of Cleaning Out an Attic’ by Brad Eastland

July 4, 2010
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      I spent two hours moving boxes out of the attic the other day.


      And I mean painful in every application of the word.   Painful physically, for no 54-year-old man with a bad back and balky knees should spend two hours in a 115-degree attic crawling around lifting and lowering down heavy boxes, and painful emotionally, for the inevitable angst that comes from having to revisit and examine every milestone, event, and occurrence—great and small—that a man might experience during the first two-thirds of his life.

      In fact I’m still in the process of working my way through the revisiting and examining.   It’ll probably take me weeks to go through all of the 25 or so ample-sized boxes stuffed full of letters, postcards, pictures, newspapers, baby clothes, baby toys, and vacation memorabilia.   That’s what happens when you get divorced and sell your house.   You wind up reliving your whole life about, oh, 15 or 20 years earlier than you thought you were going to have to relive it.

      Not surprisingly, there were a lot of memories crammed into that attic (and into the garage, underground crawlspaces, and bedroom closets for that matter) that had to do with sports.

      Not surprisingly because I am a sportsaholic.   Sports is how I mark time.   It’s how I date-stamp vacations.   It’s what I tie events and milestones to, to ensure I remember things I might not otherwise have remembered.   And as a Berkeley history major, sportswriter, and fiction writer with an eye for pop culture, it’s only natural that I would save everything under the sun, sports-history-wise, no matter how stupid or insignificant such minutiae might seem to someone not as….well, to someone not like me.image0013

      I came upon two items in particular (so far, that is) that I want to share and analyze with you.

      The first is an L.A. Times newspaper clipping.   The article was from 2002, and it dealt with the 1940 running of the Santa Anita Handicap, which was won by the legendary Seabiscuit over his stablemate, Kayak II.   I had totally forgotten about it.   Totally forgotten that I’d clipped and saved the piece.   Easy to see now why I forgot; because the piece dealt with a long-debated controversy, as to whether the jockey on Kayak “held back”, i.e. didn’t push, press, and whip his horse furiously to the wire in order to win California’s biggest horse race, so that his more beloved and illustrious stablemate could win.   It was a sobering article.   The reason the controversy was suddenly timely in 2002—62 years after Seabiscuit crossed the wire in front, by just a length mind you— is that there was a best-selling biography on The Biscuit that had recently been made into a big fat Hollywood movie starring Jeff Bridges and Tobey McGuire.   You probably saw it.   Anyway, the article alleges that Charles S. Howard, the owner of both Seabiscuit and Kayak, preferred that Seabiscuit win for all sorts of reasons.   For one thing, Kayak had already won the Big ‘Cap the previous year.   For another, Seabiscuit had been chasing victory in that same storied race for several years, narrowly losing twice, and missing a third chance at it when he went lame in 1939 and missed the whole year’s racing.   The Biscuit was making a heroic, unheard of comeback in 1940, a lame, crippled horse trying to win the biggest prize in racing west of the Kentucky Derby.   And finally, Seabiscuit was a god.   The people loved and worshipped him, and Howard, a racing fan as much as he was a racehorse owner, was no exception.

      There was plenty of anecdotal evidence in the article to support the claim of collusion.   In those days, if an owner had two horses in a race he could go to the stewards before the race and “declare to win” for one of them.   That was what they called it.   In other words, he would be telling the stewards that if it was close at the wire one of his horses would be held back so that the other could win.   Which is exactly what Howard did.   He “declared to win” for Seabiscuit, indicating that Kayak might be held back and restrained in the stretch to ensure such a result.   Such a dubious practice would never be allowed today.   But back then it was common.

      Also, Howard had placed a substantial win-wager on Seabiscuit down at Caliente Racetrack in Mexico.   So even though fans at Santa Anita wagering on Seabisuit would have stablemate Kayak coupled with him in the wagering, meaning they’d get paid no matter which one won (they call that an “entry”, if you’ve never been to the track), Howard’s wager was uncoupled.   Different rules south of the border.   The Biscuit had to win to bring home Howard’s bacon.  

      Starting to look obvious, huh.

      And finally, the visual evidence on the race replay seems to indicate that Kayak’s jockey Buddy Haas didn’t, shall we say, try very hard.   “I said after the race that Haas didn’t try with his horse, and I’m still saying it,” said Tom Dante, an old horse trainer who saw the race and was still alive in 2002.   Man.   Paul Lowry, a Times reporter, said two days after the race that Haas told him Kayak was the best horse in it.   Man.   Lowry’s son Biff Lowry (you gotta love a column that can call attention to a guy named Biff) wrote that after making a huge breathtaking move to get himself into contention, Kayak “hovered protectively in second place, ready to take over if Seabiscuit had faltered”.   Man!   I felt just like I felt last week, when after writing that really cool column on how poor Al Gore was wronged by both the Supreme Court and his wife (  ),  I found out, just like the rest of you did, that he’d allegedly intimidated and assaulted a massage therapist in 2006.   I mean is there nothing sacred on this screwed-up planet we can believe in anymore?

      Of course there is also plenty of evidence that the race was run on the square.   Seabiscuit did set a track record that day.   And he was an all-time great horse.   Howard, his trainer Tom Smith, and Seabiscuit’s jockey Red Pollard all claimed to their graves that the race was honest, and that no horse could possibly have beaten The Biscuit on that day.   So who knows.     

      As a sports historian and sports lover, I certainly don’t want to believe the worst.   It’s like with Steroids in baseball; you just don’t wanna think about it.   It’s too depressing.   So what you need to do is come up with a rationalization.   The way I rationalize Steroids in baseball is by telling myself that every era in baseball has its skeleton.   The teens had legal spitballs and the fixing of the 1919 World Series, the 20s and 30s and 40s had sanctioned racism, the 60s had too much expansion, the 70s and 80s had the amphetamines (“greenies”) scandal, and with Steroids if the pitchers and the hitters were both using the juice what difference does it make?   

      Same with this Seabiscuit thing.   I rationalize it (while knowing deep down that it’s probably true and the outcome was fixed) by telling myself over and over and over that there’s no indisputable proof and that something so heartwarming as the story of Seabscuit’s overcoming a lame leg to win the Big ‘Cap couldn’t possibly be anything but genuine or else the whole World is just a complete farce.   Anyway, that’s how I do it.

     The other piece of my humble life’s memorabilia that turned up is a much happier tale.

      My ex-wife had been going through the guest bedroom in the old house (right around the same time I was almost passing out in the attic), and had found an old 33 1/3 vinyl record on an old broken turntable underneath the bed.   That broken record player had been hiding under that bed for 16 years.   I had come over to pick my son up to take him somewhere (I forget where), when my ex hands me this huge sack of my stuff, adding casually, I think that album in there is yours.   I grabbed it and looked at it.   And the goosebumps arrived the minute the album title jumped through my eyes and into my brain: BASEBALL, THE FIRST 100 YEARS.   Narrated by Jimmy Stewart and Curt Gowdy.   $3.00.   Three dollars….that’s exactly what it cost me in 1969….as if a price tag could ever be placed on one of the most valuable, lost possessions of my youth.

      Lost indeed.   I hadn’t laid eyes on this album in over 16 years.   I was sure that it was gone forever.   That I had lost it.   I guess nothing is ever really lost in this world, only misplaced until it is or isn’t found.   So I just stared at it.   While my son, my girlfriend, and my ex stared at me.   I bet they thought I was going to faint.   And they were almost right.

      Anyway, a treasured family heirloom had been found.   Most people my age—when naming a favorite all-time vinyl album—would point to something like the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or the Stones’ Got Live if You Want It or Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, but not me.   This little 3-dollar baseball record is my favorite album of all time.

      Who else but Jimmy Stewart (the very definition of ‘Americana’) could have narrated it?   What a joy to receive his gravelly recitations of so many wonderful baseball anecdotes, stories, and hot stove league debates from baseball’s glorious past.   And who better to take us into the world of broadcast than Hall of Fame broadcaster Curt Gowdy, the man who called Ted Williams’ home run in his final at-bat on September 28th, 1960?   That very call is on the record.   So is the immortal Russ Hodges call of Bobby Thomson’s home run off Ralph Branca to win the 1951 pennant for the Giants.   So is the call of Willie Mays’ over-the-shoulder grab of Vic Wertz’ long laser-like line drive in the 1954 World Series, a picture of which hangs proudly in my new house.  (Y’see, Seabiscuit might have been Charles S. Howard’s god, but Willie Mays was my god….)

      And then there is Vin Scully.   Our very own local Los Angeles living legend.   If there is one single, solitary broadcasting triumph that is associated with the peerless Scully more than any other, it is surely his nostalgic, melodic, memorable rendition of Sandy Koufax’s perfect game.   Way back in 1965.   Perhaps you recall it: “It is nine forty-six p.m.   Two and two to Harvey Kuenn, one strike away….Sandy into his wind-up, the pitch….swung on and missed a perfect game!”    Talk about goosebumps.   I was nine.   Seems like yesterday.

      I called my sister Marji.   I wasn’t sure if she’d even remember the album (much less my losing it), but I had to tell somebody.   To my colossal surprise, she responded, “Is that the one with two and two to Harvey Kuenn?”   Again, I almost fainted.   You gotta understand something; I’m crazy for Marji, and she’s a gal with many fine qualities….but a good memory is not among them.   She usually can’t remember what she did last week, much less what happened at Dodger Stadium 45 years ago.   And in fact she really has no specific idea who Harvey Kuenn is; she has no idea that he was a fine right-handed batter with a .303 lifetime batting average and 2,092 base hits to his credit, or that after his career was over he had his leg amputated and then managed the Milwaukee Brewers (the wonderfully nicknamed “Harvey’s Wallbangers”) to their only pennant in 1982.   All she knows is that he is some vague piece to a long-ago Vin Scully baseball broadcast puzzle.   Can you imagine how many times I must have pounded that call into her ears, verbatim, for her to recall such a thing???  

      A couple days later my girlfriend and I listened to the entire record.   It made me ache for my youth, but it was still a good day’s ride on the subway of my life.   Good things come from bad, as she likes to say.  

      Some nights I just lie awake and I can still hear it: “Two and two to Harvey Kuenn, one strike away….Sandy into his wind-up, the pitch……………………………..……….”

meet….The Sports Philosopher!image0022

Brad Eastland is an author, historian, film buff, undiscovered fictioneer, and owner of a really cool baseball album— in no particular order.   Brad’s other recent columns for LaVerneOnline can be found in Sports under ‘The Sports Philosopher’ and also in Viewpoint under ‘Brad Eastland’s View’.    Brad has also written 4 novels and over 20 short-stories.    Samples of his best fiction work can be discovered within the fascinating links below:







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