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PLEASE NOTE: Michael doesn’t get a chance to read these before they are posted. They are written by Stephen Foulard. Michael cannot guarantee their accuracy.
The White World of Sports
Episode IV: A New Hope
It is baseball season. Rebel Astros, striking from a secret dugout, have won what feels like their first victory against the evil National League. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to Major League Baseball’s ultimate weapon, the DESIGNATED HITTER, an odd quirk in the rules that allows the pitcher to warm the bench while his team is at bat and keeps him from destroying an entire inning. Pursued by the profit motive, the Astros’ owner has prevailed on the commissioner to move his flailing team to the American League, custodians of the DH rule, that can maybe save his fortunes and restore interest in the team. “Help me, Obi Bud, you’re my only hope.”
Feh! That was another wasted year. The only good thing I noticed was that at least the ’Stros won the last home game with Milo at the mic. Losing on his last night in the booth in Minute Maid would have been a giant middle fing-… um… well, it would have seemed disrespectful. Long gone are those heady days of 2005 when, almost in stunned disbelief, we saw our boys take their only-ever NL pennant and, in less-stunned disbelief, watched them subsequently get swept by the White Sox, later alleged to be Barack Obama’s home team, despite, when being asked to name his favorite players, his quickly but awkwardly changing the subject to how much he can pander to Cubs’ fans too. Gone also was the last player still on the roster from that legendary team, pitcher Wandy Rodriguez, one of whose first accomplishments in a Pirate’s uniform being to hand his old team a loss for our trouble. That lonely pennant is going to look weird hanging in an American League ballpark, to be snickered at by Yankees, Orioles, and, worst of all, Dallas’s Texas Rangers. How much humiliation can one town take? Ask any Astros fan: a lot.
Mind you, I’ve got nothing against the Rangers. They’ve had a great year (92-64 as I write this), they’ve got “Texas” in the name, and, of course, they’re President Bush’s old team. (I know it’s not a qualification for the job, but wasn’t it great back when we had a president who could put one over the plate without its first having to bounce?) It’s the Dallas connection that bothers me. Not that I obsess about that either, but…. Years ago I attended a Republican state convention in Fort Worth and, on my way home, drove into Dallas to get on I-45. I switched on the radio to see if I could learn what they talk about up there, and, I swear, it wasn’t ten seconds before I heard them say something rude about Houston. I had been told to expect that, but I hadn’t expected it so fast. Some years later, a friend then living in Nashville was on his way out to Los Angeles, visiting friends en route, and a bunch of us went out to dinner while he was here. His previous stop had been Dallas, and he remarked, with no small amount of wonder, on the animosity toward Houston openly displayed by our northern counterparts. I chuckled in recognition, which prompted him to ask, “Stephen, what do you think of Dallas?” I replied, “I can go months at a time without thinking of Dallas.”
But I digress. (For those of you new to White History Month, get used to that.)
Enough of these current affairs: these articles are supposed to be about history! So let’s journey back to a more innocent time, when guys in white slacks walked out onto a field, one of them threw a ball toward another with a bat, and, if the latter connected, that ball went flying while the batsmen ran back and forth between the wickets. “Wait, what?” you’ve probably interjected, “you can’t just change the subject on me like that. That wouldn’t be cricket!” But, oh yes, my friend, it would be, and it was.
People have been hitting stuff with sticks for as long as we’ve had opposable thumbs, and they’ve been organizing to do so competitively for nearly as long as that. (See the White World of Sports, Chapter 2, section on polo.) Though it is believed to have derived from a medieval children’s game, the origins of cricket are lost to history, but it was in the 16th and 17th Centuries when adult recreational sports began to arise (see the White World of Sports, Chapter 1, section on tennis), and cricket was one such. The earliest reference to adults playing the game is from a 1611 court document reflecting that two men in Sussex were prosecuted for playing on a Sunday instead of attending church. (If it weren’t for the fact that the Red Sox were only a much later development, I would suppose that this act of oppression had prompted religious dissenters to depart the mother country for freedom in New England.) The Puritan dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell (1649-58) banned cricket outright, along with other diversions like theater and Christmas, but with the monarchical Restoration came everything else too.
For the uninitiated, cricket is bewildering. The field of play, instead of being a diamond with a fence line arc marking the end of the outfield, is typically oval, though sometimes round. Instead of our familiar four bases, there are two wickets. There is no catcher; instead, the “bowler’s” object is to strike the wicket with the ball. If he does so, the batsman is “dismissed”; likewise, as in baseball, he is dismissed if he hits the ball but it is caught before it hits the ground by another defensive player. Unlike in baseball, however, there is no designated specialized pitcher: the defending players take turns bowling, each bowler being limited to six bowls – an “over”. (Curious fact: cricket and baseball are the only sports wherein the ball is controlled by the team playing defense.) The game is played in “innings”, though, strange to American ears, the word is singular as well as plural. The innings is completed (see how odd that sounds?) either when ten of the eleven players on the batting team have been dismissed or after a specific number of overs. The match is completed when… well, honestly, I’m not entirely clear on how you tell when the match is completed. Whatever.
It didn’t take long for the game to make it to the colonies – in fact, it was played in America before it was known in the north of England – and wherever the British planted their flag, they planted wickets soon thereafter. Enthusiasm for the game, though occasionally interrupted by war, accelerated in the 18th Century, with organized county teams (and their wealthy patrons), press coverage, standardized rules, and even professional players. British troops played cricket on the day before facing down Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815; the park in Brussels where they played is still called “the Englishmen’s Lawn”. (Some of you may recall the scene from the 2003 movie Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World, set in 1805, wherein the sailors and marines pass some leisure time in the Galapagos Islands by distilling alcohol and playing cricket.) Today, the game retains enormous popularity throughout the British Commonwealth, most notably in the West Indies and South Asia, whence some of the best players come. It is apparently a very big deal in places like Jamaica, India, and even Pakistan, as well as the usual suspects, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Canada, it would seem, however, has chosen a different path.
We like to think that baseball is quintessentially American, but its true origins are somewhat obscure as well, and it too appears to have originated in England. What we would recognize as American baseball has an actual birthdate and –place: June 19, 1846, in Hoboken, New Jersey, in a game in which the “New York Nine” crushed the Knickerbockers 23-1 after four innings. (Those of you who read Chapter 3 of the White World of Sports may recall at this point the 1-0 final score of the first basketball game ever played.)
The oldest professional team still in existence are the Cincinnati Reds, who, as the “Red Stockings”, date from 1869. The National League dates from 1876. Prior to 1884, all pitches were underhand, and the batter was allowed an unlimited number of foul balls until 1901, the same year in which the American League formed. The rivalry between the leagues was often worse than that between teams, as, disregarding each other’s contracts, each would poach the other’s players. This litigious anarchy ended with the appointment, in the wake of the infamous 1919 “Black Sox” scandal, in which bribery resulted in a thrown World Series, of the first commissioner of baseball, Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, in 1920. Order was brought to chaos, and the result, with a few relatively minor changes, is the game we see today.
The US isn’t the only country wherein baseball is played. It is the most popular team sport in both Japan and Cuba. Legend had it that Fidel Castro was a star pitcher in college and was scouted by MLB teams, but that story is now said to have always been only propaganda. Still, it is a measure of the popularity of the game there that his minions have sought to associate him with it. Another legend has it that it was aerial reconnaissance of soccer fields being constructed that told American analysts that the Soviets were building a base in Cuba in the lead up to the 1962 Missile Crisis: Cubans don’t play soccer. For the record, both the East and West Leagues in Cuba have designated hitters batting for the pitchers, as does the Pacific League in Japan, while Japan’s Central League does not.
The game is also popular in many countries in Latin America, with whose best players US teams happily abscond. There are even leagues in several European countries, but, of course, the game there is greatly overshadowed by soccer.
And who can forget that dark day in 1992 when the Toronto Blue Jays clinched the World Series against Atlanta? I remember it like it was yesterday, subsequently tuning in to watch Saturday Night Live, and seeing all the cast members of a “certain persuasion”, including Phil Hartman in a full Mountie uniform, opening the show with a rousing rendition of O Canada. That hurt.
And now, those same Jays will be in our schedule, along with the Angels, the Athletics, the Mariners, and a bunch of other teams I never had to care about until now. I don’t know if I’ll be able to lift my head anymore. “A New Hope”? I don’t know. I think I’m going to be crying in my beer for quite a while yet.
And on the peanuts. Yo, buddy, some peanuts over here!
On behalf of the Committee for the Second Annual Observance of White History Month,
© Stephen Foulard
Threats to Civilization – Chapter 1
The Birth and Rise of Mohammedanism
Once upon a time, there was a great empire that encompassed all the shores of its largely maritime realm. Though it suffered to varying degrees under bouts of corruption, and remote parts of it had been occupied by uncivilized invaders, its banner was still held aloft by its long line of emperors, some wise, some foolish, some great, some venal. And harsh as its rule could be from time to time on both its subjects and its enemies, the Eastern Roman Empire of the Byzantine Greeks preserved order and promoted prosperity for its people for centuries. Its great cities throughout the eastern Mediterranean were home to craftsmen and merchants, artists and lawyers, soldiers, sailors, and priests; and its mighty capital of Constantinople was the beating heart of Christendom.
Far to the southeast, in the desert sands where few ventured, was another people, the Arabs: barbarous and pagan, the few who lived in the largely empty expanse were mostly nomadic herdsmen and merchants with their camel caravans. From their number arose a charismatic leader of brigands and cutthroats who proclaimed himself the infallible prophet of a religion of his own devising, centered on a book he himself had authored. When he was weak, he made treaties; when he was strong he broke them. When covetousness struck him – for his neighbors’ lands, herds, women, whatever – he would announce a new “revelation” from his god providing sanction for his crimes. Stealing, murdering, conquering, enslaving, and while he was at it, marrying a six-year-old, Mohammed propelled his tribe first to subdue their neighbors, and then, by the time of his death in AD 632, the western half of Arabia, from the Gulf of Aqaba to Yemen.
To avoid death, his captives had only two choices: conversion or submission. Conversion made them his warriors; submission, the status of the dhimmi, meant payment of tribute, no legal rights, and countless indignities at the hands of the Mohammedan faithful. The Arabic word islam means “submission”: submit or die.
Mohammed’s successors continued his jihad, spreading their creed by the sword into the two rival empires that sat to the north. Within ten years, they had overwhelmed the Byzantines in Judaea and Syria and conquered Egypt, the empire’s breadbasket; within twenty, the entire Persian Empire of the Sassanians had been subdued, and their conquests extended as far west as Tripoli, as far north as Cyprus and Tarsus, and as far east as Afghanistan. By 710, they had reached the Atlantic Ocean in Morocco, they were across the Indus River in India, and they had taken the wealthy city of Samarkand sitting athwart the Silk Road in Central Asia. The next year, they crossed into Spain, pushing the Christians Visigoths into a small mountainous bastion in the north, and they spent the next quarter century raiding France. They seemed unstoppable. Though the Byzantines still stood strong in the east, there was a real possibility that they would be confronted on all sides by monolithic Mohammedanism, intent on world conquest.
Only then were they stopped. The Visigoth count, Pelayo, fought them to a standstill at Covadonga (the battle is dated variously anywhere from 717 to 722) and was rewarded with his people’s crown. The Franks did likewise, under their duke, Charles Martel (“the Hammer”), who bloodied them at Tours near the river Loire – that is, closer to Paris than to Spain – in 732. Though the Moors continued to attack France for years afterward, they were never able to establish a lasting presence. Under this constant pressure to defend, the Franks instituted a permanent military caste, and feudalism was born to support it. The Spanish and their allies from other Christian kingdoms spent the next almost eight centuries retaking the country from the entrenched Mohammedan emirs.
Stopped in the West, the Mohammedans gained new impetus in the East. Migrating from the Far East, the Turks found in Mohammedanism a faith amenable to conquerors, and found themselves on the Byzantine border in the late 11th Century. At Manzikert in 1071, they handed the Greeks a crippling defeat and moved into the high plateau of Anatolia, which they called the Sultanate of Rum (Turkish for Rome) and where they remain to this day. The Greek and Latin churches had formalized their schism only a generation before, but so dire was this peril that the Byzantine emperor, Alexius I Comnenus, wrote to the Pope in Rome for aid in 1092. He is said to have been expecting mercenaries, to serve in his employ; what he got were Crusaders, with ambitions and designs of their own.
These men of the First Crusade, mostly from France, Flanders, and Germany, fought their way through Anatolia and down the Levantine coast and captured Jerusalem in 1099. A string of feudal Latin principalities and counties dotted the landscape, with the King of Jerusalem as suzerain, not sovereign. It was not to last, however, as the Mohammedan sultan Saladin, a Kurd from Egypt, took Jerusalem from them in 1187. A Third Crusade was mounted by Richard the Lion-heart of England, Philip II Augustus of France, and the German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (who died en route) to retake it, but it and all subsequent efforts failed. The last Crusader stronghold, Acre, fell in 1291. (A “White History Month” movie recommendation: 2005’s Kingdom of Heaven, which, though fictionalized – Balian was not a blacksmith, and he was far from popular with the chroniclers – nevertheless includes a fair amount of historicity and conveys a good feel for the events surrounding the fall of Jerusalem.)
It was not long afterward when the Ottoman Turks first landed in Europe. Having conquered the Asian side of the Byzantine Empire, they spent the next century and more gutting the European side, extending their rule to the Danube and ultimately reducing the fabled empire to just the city of Constantinople. Though they had been for ages safe behind their massive walls, time had caught up with them, and in 1453 the Turks brought up the largest artillery pieces then known, pounding the ancient stones until they punctured them. The last Byzantine emperor died fighting alongside his men; his body was never identified, so he was buried among them in a common grave. And on that dark day, the Hagia Sophia, the greatest church in all of Christendom, cathedral of emperors, became a mosque.
As before, so then: the Christians of Turkish Europe were subject to the same cultural oppression that Mohammedans had imposed on the Copts of Egypt, the Syriacs and Chaldeans of Syria and Medopotamia, and the Jews. The Ottoman Turks, however, took it one step farther: they demanded a child from each Christian family, raised them as Mohammedans, and trained them to be the most feared soldiers in the empire, the Janissaries.
The Ottoman Empire dominated the map like no state had since Rome and had both the ambitions and the capabilities to do even more.
In the next installment, the Turks at their peak threaten the destruction of the West.
On behalf of the Committee for the Second Annual Observance of White History Month,
© Stephen Foulard