July 24

1983 The Pine Tar Controversy

Baseball is a game with many rules, some written, some unspoken. One of those rules (Rule 1.10c) deals with the use of adhesive permissible on the handle of a bat. A grip-enhancer, such as pine tar, cannot be applied farther than 18 inches from the bottom of the bat. Any malefactor found to be using such an implement was (according to the regulations in effect in 1983) to be deemed out and ejected from the contest.

On July 24, 1983, the New York Yankees were playing the Kansas City Royals at Yankee Stadium. In the top of the ninth inning, the Bronx Bombers were leading 4-3 with two out, one on, and famed stopper Goose Gossage and his bizarre moustache on the mound. Up strode George Brett, a prodigiously gifted hitter and tobacco chewer. The two future Hall of Famers performed the ritual glare before Brett fouled off the first pitch and then smote the second into the right field stands for a two-run home run and a 5–4 lead. 

Enter now the Yankee skipper Billy Martin – like fabled Odysseus, a man of many wiles. He drew the attention of the umpires to Brett’s bat and the officials determined that the pine tar extended a fatal 6″ too high. Brett was ruled out, his home run was cancelled, and the Yankees declared the winner.

Upon hearing this decision, Brett launched himself from the dugout and begged to differ so vigorously that he had to be physically restrained from raising his objections on umpire Tim McClelland’s person. Great was the snickering of the Yankees and deep was the woe of the Royals as the players exited the field. Yet our tale is not ended.

The Royals appealed the decision to American League president Lee McPhail. In a ruling as arbitrary as any made by a medieval pope, MacPhail decided that the penalties prescribed by 1.10c were null and void — the extensive use of pine tar was an aesthetic violation (it would mark the ball) and not one that gave an unfair competitive advantage. The game was to be resumed from the point of Brett’s home run. The Yankees protested with law suits, injunctions were issued, but the courts ruled that the rescheduled contest should be held on August 18.

Martin’s shrewdness was again in evidence. Before the first pitch was thrown, the ball was tossed to first base on the theory that Brett had not tagged the bag on July 24. The umpire ruled him safe. The ball was then thrown to second base on the theory that U.L. Washington, the base runner on when Brett hit his homer, had not not touched there. Again the ruling was safe — though neither call was given by an umpire who had been officiating in the original game. Martin, with the good sportsmanship that marked his entire career, naturally protested, but the pin-striped helmsman was stunned when the umpire crew chief pulled out a notarized affidavit, signed by all four umpires from July 24, vowing that Brett had touched every base. 

The Royals went on to win the game 5-4 with the Yankees declaring that they were playing under protest. The bat is now in the Hall of Fame and the penalties of the pine tar rule have been changed.

July 23

1888 Birth of Raymond Chandler

The English language owes much to American wordsmith Raymond Chandler who elevated the private eye into a cultural icon. Chandler was born in Nebraska to Maurice Chandler, an alcoholic father who soon abandoned his family, and Florence Dart, a devoted mother who had young Raymond educated at ritzy Dulwich College in England.

He served with a Canadian regiment during World War I but had difficulty finding his way in peacetime. Chandler had problems with alcohol, mommy issues, and holding a steady job. It was not until he was in his 40s that Chandler found his true métier, writing hard-boiled detective novels, a genre which he raised from pulp fiction to literary art. Gems like The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely, and The Long Goodbye were turned into films. [By all means revel in the cinematic delights of the first two mentioned, graced by Dick Powell and Humphrey Bogart — but, at all costs, avoid Robert Altman’s unforgivable 1973 desecration of the latter.]

Here are some great Chandler lines:

Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.
It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.
Dead men are heavier than broken hearts. 
It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it.
And his definition of the sort of hero the genre required, outlined in “The Simple Art of Murder”: Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.

July 20

Operation Valkyrie fails

By the summer of 1944 it was evident to all but Adolf Hitler that Germany was soon going to lose the war. The western Allies were ashore in great numbers in Normandy and were headed for Paris. In Italy, Rome  had fallen. At sea, the Atlantic had been scoured of U-boats and Germany’s few remaining capital ships dared not leave port. The Vaterland’s cities were being incinerated night (RAF) and day (USAAF) while the relentless push of the Red Army was driving the Wehrmacht and its allies back toward Berlin. 

The doom that awaited those who bore responsibility for starting the war and the revenge that would be wrought on Germany was clear to the officer elite. Some hoped that a new government, cleansed of Nazis, might be able to get better terms than Unconditional Surrender and some may even have thought of an Anglo-American-German alliance against the Soviet Union. A group of officers, dominated by those with aristocratic or Christian connections, planned to kill Hitler in his Prussian Wolf’s Lair (as close as he ever got to the Eastern Front) on July 20. Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, head of the Home Army, was to place a bomb in the conference room near the Führer, and then radio his fellow plotters in Berlin when the assassination had been successfully carried out. 

Unfortunately, Stauffenberg had suffered the loss of an eye, one hand and fingers on he other and from a war injury and he was unable to prime all the explosives in the case. Moreover, an aide had nudged the bomb farther under a thick oak table which shielded Hitler from the blast. Worse yet, Stauffenberg thought that Hitler had been killed in the explosion and told the Berlin cabal to carry out their coup. Within hours the truth was known, and the conspirators were either dead (the lucky ones) or arrested to await torture and execution. The war would continue.

The best short book on the subject is “Countdown to Valkyrie by Nigel Jones. Ben Pastor’s Night of Falling Stars is an entertaining fictional account. Of Tom Cruise’s portrayal of Stauffenberg in Valkyrie, it is best not to speak.

July 14

Agitation for a Second Front

When, in August 1939, the USSR and Nazi Germany signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, agreeing to a 10-year peace, Communists in the West were startled. They were no longer to say bad things about Hitler and, in the next month, when the invasion of Poland by the armies of both Hitler and Stalin started World War Two, party loyalists were instructed to oppose, sabotage, and obstruct the military efforts of Britain and France. In the United States, leftists such as Peter Seeger and Woody Guthrie, urged America to stay out of the conflict, calling President Roosevelt a war-monger.

Things changed in the summer of 1941 when Germany broke the pact and invaded the Soviet Union. Communists in the UK and USA now enthusiastically backed the war effort and soon began to clamour for a “Second Front in Europe” to ease the pressure on the Red Army. When this failed to take shape soon enough, leftists claimed that the capitalist West was happy to see the USSR suffer horrific losses.

The failure of the Dieppe raid in 1942, where the largely Canadian invading force was pinned down and butchered scarcely having got off the beaches, convinced planners that taking a port was not the way to go. Amphibious attacks were undertaken in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy, with mixed results and many lessons learned. It was not until June 1944 that the western Allies felt ready to launch Operation Overland and land on five Normandy beaches.

The call for a “Second Front” was always a code phrase for “more help for Russia.” Britain was fighting on a number of fronts in the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean, Asia, and in the air over Germany, and when the USA joined they too waged war from Alaska to New Guinea in the Pacific and in Europe.


July 13

A plethora of birthdays

Appearing on Earth for the first time on this day were

1821 Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate cavalryman, war criminal, founder of the Ku Klux, and, apparently, a late convert to racial harmony.

1863 Margaret Murray, English anthropologist and horribly mistaken proponent of the origin of witchcraft.

1940 Patrick Stewart, English actor and Star Trek captain.

1942 Harrison Ford, American actor, starship captain, and archaeologist.


And best of all:

1903 Sir Kenneth Clark, English art historian. Born into a life of aristocratic privilege, be was chosen at a very early age to be director of Britain’s National Gallery and Keeper of the King’s Pictures. He is best known for the greatest documentary series in television history, 1969’s Civilisation: A Personal View. This 13-episode gem could never be made in today’s woke times. Imagine a broadcasting company giving a limitless budget to an elderly white male with a crooked tooth and a comb-over, tailored in 1930s-style suits, sitting still and talking about great art and architecture. Not the slightest nod to diversity, intersectionality, or the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Imagine allowing someone with these sorts of ideas to have a public platform:

I hold a number of beliefs that have been repudiated by the liveliest intellects of our time. I believe that order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta. On the whole I think that knowledge is preferable to ignorance, and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology.

Watch the series or read the book. You will be a better human being for having done so.

July 11

1804 The death of Alexander Hamilton

The fame of American revolutionary Alexander Hamilton has blossomed in the 21st century, thanks largely to a Broadway musical whose charms are (I confess) lost on me. Readers might be interested in a 19th-century English assessment of the man, from Chambers’ Book of Days.

Although the name of Alexander Hamilton is not so popularly familiar as several others concerned in the construction of the American Union, yet there is scarcely another which so closely interests the profounder students of that momentous passage in the world’s history. Of Hamilton’s share in that work, [French politician and historian Françcois] Guizot testifies, ‘that there is not one element of order, strength, and durability in the constitution which he did not powerfully contribute to introduce into the scheme and cause to be adopted.’

Hamilton’s father was a Scotsman, and his mother a member of a Huguenot family, banished from France. He was born in 1757, on the island of Nevis; and whilst a youth serving as clerk in a merchant’s office, a hurricane of more than ordinary violence occurred, and Hamilton drew up an account of its ravages, which was inserted in a West Indian newspaper. The narrative was so well written, and excited so much attention, that the writer was deemed born for something better than mercantile drudgery, and was sent to New York to prosecute his education. The dispute between Great Britain and the colonies had begun to grow very warm, and Hamilton soon distinguished himself by eloquent speeches in advocacy of resistance. 

With the ardour of youth he commenced the study of military tactics, and turned his learning to good account in the first action between the British and Americans at Lexington in 1775. In the course of the unhappy war which followed, Hamilton was Washington’s most trusted and confidential aid. At the conclusion of hostilities he commenced practice at the bar, became secretary of the treasury under President Washington, and a leading actor in all those intricate, delicate, and perplexing discussions, which attended the consolidation of the thirteen independent colonies into one nation. 

Hamilton was the most conservative of republicans. He opposed the ultra-democratic doctrines of Jefferson. [That is putting it mildly. Here are Hamilton’s observations on America’s third president: The moral character of Jefferson was repulsive. Continually puffing about liberty, equality and the degrading curse of slavery he brought his own children to the hammer and made money out of his debaucheries.] He was an ardent admirer of the English constitution, and he beheld the course of the French Revolution with abhorrence and dismay.

But all the blessings which lay in store for America in the treasury of Hamilton’s fine intellect, were lost by a cruel mischance ere he had attained his forty-seventh year. With the feelings of an upright man, he had expressed his sense of the profligacy of Aaron, who thereon challenged him to a duel. Hamilton had all reasonable contempt for such a mode of settling differences, but fearing, as he wrote, that ‘his ability to be in future useful either in preventing mischief or effecting good was inseparable from a conformity to prejudice in this particular,’ he weakly yielded. With every precaution of secrecy, he met his adversary at Weehardken, near New York. Colonel Burr fired, and his ball entered Hamilton’s side. Hamilton fell mortally wounded, his pistol going involuntarily off as he staggered to the ground. After a day of agony, he expired on the 11th of July 1804. Never, except at Washington’s death, was there such mourning in America.

Hamilton was a man under middle height, spare, erect, and of a most dignified presence. His writings in The Federalist are read by political philosophers with admiration to this day. He wrote rapidly, but with precision and method. His habit was to think well over his subject, and then, at whatever time of night, to go to bed and sleep for six or seven hours. On awaking, he drank a cup of strong coffee, sat down at his desk, and for five, six, seven, or even eight hours continued writing, until he had cleared the whole matter off his mind.

July 8

1853-54 Commodore Perry blows the doors off Japan

Japan, under the Tokugawa shogunate, was a notoriously isolated part of the planet. For 250 years the military government of the puppet emperors had barred all foreigners, save for a tiny number of Dutch ships, from entering Japan and forbade all Japanese from leaving the country or returning from abroad. This flew in the face of American and European desires for expanded trade with Asia — China had only recently been forced to accept commerce, diplomatic recognition, and the intrusion of missionaries.

On July 8, 1853 Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Japanese waters with a fleet of steamships equipped with modern artillery. He bullied his way into delivering a note from President Fillmore which demanded diplomatic and trade openness from the government of Japan. Perry promised that he would return in 1854, leaving the shogunate in a bind: contact with foreigners had proved toxic to China and would doubtless mean social upheaval, but militarily there was no way to resist the pressures from the outside world. The Russian empire, France, and Britain were certain to want whatever rights were granted to the Americans. When asked their opinion of options, half of the great feudal lords wanted to resist and half wanted to capitulate.

When Perry returned in February 1854 with an even bigger fleet, the Japanese government had decided to yield to the foreigners’ importunities. The wiser of their statesmen saw that the future was steam-powered and explosively advanced; Japan could learn from the barbarians and, in time, beat them at their own imperialist game. And so it proved to be so.

July 4

As citizens of the United States of America celebrate their Independence Day, it is time for my annual lament over the success of their 18th-century rebellion from the crown. Americans, and the world, would have been better served by remaining subjects of His Britannic Majesty George III. A democratic trans-Atlantic empire, free of slavery and with an unwritten evolving constitution, might well have been in the cards.

In 1776 the aforementioned king directed the Church of England to pray for the success of efforts to put down the ill-advised tumult in the thirteen errant colonies. Here are two prayers uttered to that end.

O Lord God of our salvation, in whose hands are the issues of life and death, of good and evil, and without whose aid the wisest counsels of frail men, and the multitude of an host, and all the instruments of war are but weak and vain; incline thine ear, we pray thee, to the earnest and devout supplications of thy servants, who, not confiding in the splendour of any thing that is great, or the stability of any thing that is strong here below, do most humbly flee, O Lord, unto thee for succour, and put their trust under the shadow of thy wings. Be thou to us a tower of defence against the assaults of our enemies, our shield and buckler in the day of battle, and so bless the arms of our gracious Sovereign, in the maintenance of His just and lawful rights, and prosper His endeavours to restore tranquillity among His unhappy deluded subjects in America, now in open rebellion against His Crown, in defiance of all subordination and legal government, that we being preserved by thy help and goodness from all perils and disasters, and made happily triumphant over all the disturbers of our peace, may joyfully laud and magnify thy glorious Name; and serve thee from generation to generation in all godliness and quietness, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

O Blessed Lord, who hast commanded us by thy beloved Son to love our Enemies, and to extend our charity in praying even for those, who despitefully use us, give grace we beseech thee, to our unhappy fellow subjects in America, that seeing and confessing the error of their ways, and having a due sense of their ingratitude for the many blessings of thy Providence, preserved to them by the indulgent care and protection of these kingdoms, they may again return to their duty, and make themselves worthy of thy pardon and forgiveness: Grant us in the mean time not only strength and courage to withstand them, but charity to forgive and pity them, to shew a willingness to receive them again as friends and brethren, upon just and reasonable terms, and to treat them with mercy and kindness for the sake of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

July 2

1867 Anti-Confederation sentiments

The enthusiasm of four British North American colonies for Confederation was not shared by others on the continent. Prince Edward Island with a tiny population was worried about being swamped by numbers if they joined Canada East, Canada West,  Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick in a Canadian nation. They had no interest in a trans-Canadian railway and, though they had hosted the critical Charlottetown Conference, they declined to sign on to Confederation in 1867.

It was a close-run thing as well in Nova Scotia where Joseph Howe called for staying out but the most vociferous opponents of union were in Newfoundland, the oldest of all British colonies. Here are the lyrics to a rousing anti-Canadian anthem.

Prince Edward Island finally gave into the siren song of the promise of a steamer connection to the mainland and capitulated in 1873. Despite a vain attempt at independence fail during the Depression of the 1930s, Newfoundland stayed outside Canada until a dodgy referendum of 1948 brought the Rock in.