The Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge is a 5,000 acre tract that straddles the New York/New Jersey border at Orange County, N.Y., and Sussex County, N.J. It was established in 1990 primarily for the preservation of wetlands. It is home to migratory birds and waterfowl as well as the endangered bog turtle. The Appalachian Trail runs through the refuge. Best access is via the 2.5 mile Liberty Loop trail that starts in Pine Island, N.Y.
The TV dinner was unleashed on Americans in 1953. The next year we ate 10 million of them. Frozen dinners weren’t necessarily new and Swanson’s offering wasn’t especially good. But it was the right idea at the right time and the reaction of the nation’s media tells us why.
The enthusiasm with which the TV dinner was greeted is captured in this review by Grace Warlow Barr in the Orlando Evening Star on July 14, 1954:
“Through the generosity of the local representative of C.A. Swanson and Sons, we had an opportunity last weekend to discover the magic of Swanson’s TV Fried Chicken Dinner. We were given SIX of these dinners, each tidily sealed in functional sectionized plates with tight aluminum foil cover. All you do is pop them in the oven, follow cooking directions, and you’re ready to eat! Lacking a TV, we took them over the T. P. Warlows’. We’re the literal type, and when we eat a TV dinner we want to be watching TV!
“The chicken dinners made a great hit, and the next night, the Warlow children insisted on using the same plates for dinner, carrying their meal out onto the patio.
“It just doesn’t seem possible that you can serve a whole meal with no more effort than turning on the oven. But so it is. One section of the plate holds a bountiful portion of fried chicken. There is a section filled with a vegetable medley, and the remaining section holds very delicious, creamy diced potatoes in a smooth sauce. The whole business is, of course, quick frozen, and it’s a fantastic example of American ingenuity and know-how. A salad, bread, a drink and dessert are all you need to add, and actually, you don’t really feel the need of a salad.
“For the gal who has a job, these TV dinners should prove a terrific boon. One friend of ours, who has a young son, tells us that these TV dinners have simplified things considerably for her. Usually it’s the son’s suggestion that she stop on the way home and pick up a couple of TV dinners.”
The 50’s were not known for expansive views of the roles of women in a family setting. So pundits were quick to point to mom as the key beneficiary of dinners that you don’t actually have to cook.
The Shreveport Times of Sept. 23, 1955 made that point:
“Perhaps you are the ‘one out of four’ women who trundles a grocery cart through the food market after working all day at a desk, behind a store counter or at a soda fountain.
“If so you will be looking for the best way to fit meal preparation into your already too-busy day. How about trying the ‘look ahead’ technique. It gives you extra time to make meals well-rounded…
“See how simple it is to serve complete hot meals with the help of frozen ‘TV’ dinners They are ready and waiting in your grocer’s freezer. You’ll find chicken, beef and turkey dinners complete with two vegetables in each. They need only heating to ready them for the dinner table.”
But not everyone was enamored with how the TV and TV dinners was impacting family life. Hal Humphrey, writing in the Oakland Tribune (July 28, 1955), had some concerns:
“In recent months, the frozen food packers have come along with the ready-to-serve ‘TV dinner,’ These come packed in aluminum tins which are divided into sections, similar to GI trays found in Army mess halls.
“They’re complete dinners, with meat, potatoes and vegetables, and they sell for as low as 89 cents. There’s no preparation necessary. You simple pop ’em into the oven for 25 minutes and voila! Mama brings the TV dinners into the living room, plops ’em on the TV trays. and the entire family gets a beautiful case of heartburn, not from the food but from watching Pinky Lee or an ancient ‘Our Gang Comedy’ and trying to digest both at the same time.
“Believe me, I’m not casting aspersions on the quality of the food in these TV dinners. As a matter of act, it’s fairly tasty. Nor do I mean to make light of those cultural TV shows I mentioned. It’s just that I’m against eating in front of the TV set.
“Most of us spend too much time watching TV anyway. Why ruin our stomachs as well as our dispositions? Mealtime used to offer us an excuse for getting away from the darned thing. Now they are trying to take that sanctuary from us.
“However, I suppose it’s still futile to stop progress. We probably will have to learn to live with this latest by-product of the TV age.”
In Florida they had some even bigger concerns as discussed in this article in the Fort Lauderdale News of Nov. 7, 1954. The headline was “Frozen Food Under Fire.”
“The heat’s on for frozen foods in Broward County.
“Dr. Paul W. Hughes, county health officer, and his staff of sanitarians will begin Monday to check into conditions on frozen food departments of markets and investigate the degree of cold maintained by refrigerated trucks.
“The county health officer’s interest in the sale and transportation of frozen foods resulted from reports of food poisoning from Swanson Fried Chicken TV dinners.
“Two Hollywood residents reported their illness to the health department and many others are known to become sick after eating the dinners but did not report it to authorities.
“Broward and Dade County health officers promptly placed a ban on the sale of any more of the fried chicken dinners and health officers of other counties in Florida were planning similar action.
“However, officials of the C.A. Swanson Company flew to Miami from Nebrasha and voluntarily withdrew all the fired chicken dinners from the markets.
“The blame was fixed by the health department on mishandling of the frozen packaged dinners and not on the original processing of the Swanson company.
“It is estimated there are nearly a quarter of a million dollars of the product in Florida, the only state in which they are sold. Swanson officials explain they were testing the reception of the fried chicken dinners here before making them available nation-wide.”
Turns out the reception was good even if the digestion wasn’t. This alarm was not enough to slow the spread of the fried chicken dinner nationwide as one of the company’s most popular.
When ‘Bugs’ Birdseye left college after his family ran out of money, he took a job in Montana with an entomologist. His duties involved capturing small mammals so they could remove the ticks to research whether they were the cause of Rocky Mountain spotted fever. After that he headed up to Newfoundland where he had a ranch raising foxes. It was there that he found the inspiration that would eventually lead to his induction in the Inventors Hall of Fame.
Born Clarence, Birdseye was one of nine children growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y. The nickname ‘Bugs’ came about in Amherst where he went to college and resulted from his fascination with insects. That later became ‘Bob’ which is the name he went by for the rest of his life. Birdseye’s claim to fame, and the reason why he is fundamental to the ultimate creation of the TV dinner, is as the inventor of the modern frozen food industry.
It all starts with some ice fishing up in Newfoundland. Fishing in super cold weather through very thick ice, Birdseye found that the fish he caught froze nearly instantly when brought to the surface. He also found that the fish tasted much fresher when thawed than the commercially available frozen fish of the time. The answer was “flash freezing,’ a technique the frozen food industry, including the TV dinner makers, use to this day.
Birdseye tried to make a business of this and started Birdseye Seafoods Inc. He went bankrupt. Undeterred he developed a technique to freeze between two surfaces and was granted a patent for his “double bell freezer.” He established the General Seafood Company, moved to Gloucester, Mass., and diversified into meat, fruit and vegetables. In 1929 he sold his company and its patent for $22 million to the company that would eventually become General Foods. They created the Birds Eye Frozen Food Company, a brand you’ll still find in your grocer’s freezer.
This guy was one prolific inventor. Founder of the W.L Maxson Corporation, his inventions ranged from a robotic airplane navigation device to toy building blocks. One of his most successful inventions was a gun mount that ended up being used by allied forces during World War II.
So how does he fit into the frozen food story? It all starts with Maxson’s backyard garden in his home in Orange, N.J. Apparently he grew a lot more cauliflower that he was ever going to eat, so he tried freezing some it. Bingo! Maxson became a frozen food scientist, trying out things like hard-boiled eggs and French fries. When he had guests over for dinner, he made be sure that the freezer was stocked with pre-made dinners so he could offer each guest, the beef, or the chicken, or the fish.
Given his military background, he was a graduate of the Naval Academy, and his success in selling to the military, he came up with the idea of selling his pre-made frozen dinners to the Naval Air Transport Service. His dinners had three sections, one meat and two veggies. He also invented an oven, the Maxson Whirlwind, that could be used in the air to heat the dinners. His oven could heat up to six frozen dinners in 15 minutes. The secret was a fan in the back of the oven, a technology that is similar to what is used today in convection ovens and air fryers.
When the war ended Maxson sold Pan American World Airways on the idea of selling his “Sky Plates.” He also hoped to sell them to consumers in grocery stores. Unfortunately Maxson died unexpectedly following surgery in 1947. His heirs had little interest in pursuing his frozen food ambitions. He is nonetheless considered the first person to commercially market what we would later come to call a TV dinner.
Gerry Thomas was a Canadian salesman who came south to work for the Swanson Company. One of the things he was pretty good at selling was himself. Good enough to get himself inducted into something called the Frozen Food Hall of Fame as the inventor of the TV dinner.
Here’s the Thomas story, as told by Thomas. In 1953 Swanson, which was a producer of canned and frozen turkey, had a slow Thanksgiving sales season and ended up with a 520,000 pound surplus of frozen turkey. While they were deciding what to do with it, it was kept criss-crossing the country on refrigerated rail cars to keep it from spoiling. Thomas had seen the trays used by Pan Am for pre-prepared meals and came up with the solution. The surplus turkey would be packaged as pre-cooked frozen meals. He claimed to have come up with the name TV dinner, the packaging that looked like a TV set and even contributed his grandmother’s recipe for the cornbread stuffing.
A 2005 Washington Post story offered this assessment of Thomas’ influence: “Gerald E. Thomas had one little idea that changed the sociology of the American family, encouraged the feminist movement, ignited the obesity epidemic and introduced countless Americans to something called Salisbury steak.”
But on further inspection, other Swanson employees and the principals of the firm would later question Thomas’s role, suggesting instead that the idea came from members of the Swanson family, the marketing department or other employees.
Thomas did eventually walk back some of his story, suggesting that the country crossing rail car tale was a “metaphor” for an annual problem faced by the company. He later acknowledged that he didn’t contribute the cornbread stuffing recipe but just the idea to use cornbread. And by the way, Thomas’ wife says he never ate TV dinners.
We will probably never know who to believe here but it’s a good story. Good enough that the current owners of what was once Swanson, Pinnacle Foods, continue to offer it up.
While Thomas may or may not be the father of the TV dinner, Betty Cronin is the mother of the TV dinner. No matter whose idea it might have been, she was the person in the Swanson organization who was tasked with making it work.
Cronin came to Swanson in the early 50’s as a bacteriologist after having earned a degree in bacteriology from Duchesne University. She would later become director of product development. Cronin had a long career at Swanson and then at Campbell Soup, the company that acquired Swanson, where she was director of cooking soups and later director of Campbell’s Microwave Institute.
Her challenge at Swanson in 1953 was to figure out the recipes for the meats, vegetables and potatoes so that they could be frozen and then heated simultaneously. Her next challenge was the fried chicken dinner. She had to determine, in her words, “What kind of breading will stay on through freezing, not be too greasy and still taste good? That was the biggest challenge.”
Figuring out the kind of breading to use was not the only problem as Cronin told the Allentown Morning Call in 1994.“”When we introduced the dinners in 1954, overcoming women’s feelings of guilt for serving frozen foods to the family rather than making them from scratch was one of the biggest hurdles we faced.”
Like Thomas, Cronin claims she never had a TV dinner in her home. But as for the Thomas story Cronin told the Los Angeles Times “Gerry Thomas had nothing to do with the TV dinner.”
Gilbert and Clarke Swanson
There is one other claimant in the Swanson organization for the title of father of the TV dinner. Two, in fact, and they are the Swanson family members themselves.
Gilbert and Clarke Swanson were the sons of Carl Swanson, a Swedish immigrant who founded the company. Carl died in 1949 and the two sons took over the company. One of their first initiatives, in 1951, was the Swanson frozen pot pie, both chicken and turkey. Two years later came the TV dinner. Whose idea was it. Theirs, say the Swanson boys, who claim to have come up with the concept and the processes needed to produce the dinners.
In 1955 they sold the company to Campbell Soup, cementing the family fortune. Upon completing the sale the brothers put out this comment: “Precooked frozen foods are sparking one of the most important developments in the food industry. Our sales over the past several years reflect a swiftly growing acceptance for quick and easy meals in the quality manner. The alliance with Campbell provides the broad operational base needed to seize the opportunities ahead.” Each assumed a VP position at Campbell. They renamed the family business Swanson Enterprises, which became a holding company for real estate, trusts, foundations and the like.
The Swansons were a prominent family in Omaha known for both their philanthropy and for lavish entertaining. Gilbert, the family patriarch, married Roberta Fulbright, sister of U.S. Senator William Fullbright. The two of them fought long and often.
Roberta died in 1959. Clarke passed away two years later. As for Gilbert, we can perhaps get a glimpse of his personality by learning that he communicated with his children by memos which he would messenger over to them.
1950’s lifestyle. The centerpiece is the TV. While television was invented more than a decade before it wasn’t until the 1950’s that TV took off and assumed its place front and center in the family living room. TV brought the entertainment home. And well it did because it was a decade that saw more and more Americans becoming homeowners as well as TV owners. Post war prosperity, GI benefits and early-stage white flight brought families like the one shown above (black families were redlined out of this migration) to the suburbs.
While the television was one of the most essential pieces of furniture in the suburban home, another was the TV tray table. And atop the TV tray table? A TV dinner. The TV dinner captured the essence of the 50’s. It was an era that marveled at modern conveniences. And what was more convenient than a freezer full of pre-made dinners the preparation for which involved no more than turning on the oven. And while the 50’s can hardly be considered an era for the liberation of women, the housewives of the time were increasingly abandoning the habit of spending the afternoon over the stove, often in favor of joining the workforce.
Swanson, the premier maker of TV dinners, captured this in one of its early ads: “Now Mom is in on the TV fun at the start, and thanks to Swanson she’s ready to serve an extra-special chicken dinner.” Another ad showed mom bursting through the door, proudly proclaiming “I’m late, but dinner won’t be.”
Swanson did not invent the TV dinner. What they did was present it in the familiar aluminum tray, create the packaging, supply the moniker and promote it, heavily. The first TV dinner was a Thanksgiving style offering, turkey with cornmeal dressing and gravy, sweet potatoes and peas.
I remember four different Swanson TV dinners: turkey, beef, fried chicken and Salisbury steak. I understand there was also a fish dinner, but those never found their way into my family’s freezer. The original TV dinners came in an aluminum tray with three sections. The largest was for the entree, and a key element of this was gravy. The TV dinner featured a thick, gelatinous gravy, the main ingredients of which were likely cornstarch and salt, as well as some coloring in different shades of brown depending on beef or turkey. Salisbury steak is something I’ve never really experienced outside of a TV dinner. It could also be called a hamburger with gravy. The other two sections of the tray included potatoes and a vegetable. The potatoes likely came from some kind of powder rather than real potatoes, but they did have a bit of real butter on top, butter being another of Swanson’s products. The vegetable, corn or green beans, peas, carrots or a combination thereof where the standard frozen vegetables of the day. About the best that could be said of them is that they allowed for the perception that you were getting a balanced meal.
Initially the TV dinner cost less than a dollar. Preparation consisted of shoving it in a 425 degree oven for 25 minutes. The fried chicken dinner, my favorite, was a little trickier. You had to take the dinner out of the oven after the first 15 minutes and cut away the part of the foil that covered the chicken portion of the dinner so that the chicken would come out crispy. And it did.
I ate dozens, if not hundreds of TV dinners. Even though my mom worked, she usually cooked a dinner. But the TV dinners were ready and waiting in the freezer in case my mom was going out or just for a snack as I got older and ate more. I considered them a treat.
Were they healthy? Definitely not. The foods were generally high in fat and sodium, something that was done to add flavor because the flash-freezing process denigrated the taste of the food. You also would find that TV dinners pretty much tasted the same whether you just bought them or if they had been in the freezer for months. Trans fat-laden partially hydrogenated oils accomplished that.
I wasn’t the only one eating TV dinners. In 1954, a year after Swanson introduced them, the company sold 10 million of them. By 1956 that number had increased to 13 million. In that year, Swanson was bought out by the Campbell Soup Company. Some competitors emerged, the one I remember being Banquet. Generally they were cheaper but not as good. Being as my appetite for frozen fried chicken at the time was unlimited, I partook of the Banquet version as well.
The Swanson company was, after the sale, not particularly innovative and it would eventually lose share to companies that marketed a broader range of frozen dinners. One of the two main innovations that Swanson made was the introduction of a dessert, filling a fourth section of the aluminum serving tray with either a small brownie or a sticky apple cobbler. The other was the advent of the “Hungry Man” dinner. Same stuff, just more of it.
By 1982, the brand name TV dinner was retired. The company used the Hungry Man brand, and still does, though the unit has since been sold to PInnacle Foods. And in the 80’s, here’s the first family, sitting with their TV trays in place in the White House. Being true conservatives, they are trying to demonstrate that nothing had changed in the last thirty years.
And as for the subject of nothing having changed, it was earlier this year that the Tribune Publishing’s web site thedailymeal.com tagged the Hungry Man chicken dinner on its list of the “unhealthiest.” “Despite packaging that makes it look like a nutritious dinner mom could have made from her vintage recipes, Hungry-Man’s mesquite chicken dinner has 1,050 calories and 72 grams of fat. Containing more than 2,000 milligrams of sodium, it comes just shy of meeting the daily maximum of 2,300 milligrams suggested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At such a high amount, the sodium alone could put your blood pressure through the roof.”
I probably haven’t had a TV dinner since I graduated college, although I likely snuck in a box or two of frozen fried chicken.
I’ve never hiked the length of the Appalachian Trail, nor is it likely I ever will. But those parts of the trail nearest to me, in New York and New Jersey, are among my favorite places to walk. These photos are from a segment of the trail that goes through Wawayanda State Park. Wawayanda touches Vernon and West Milford, N.J., and Warwick, N.Y. In the middle of June, this part of the trail is as green and lush as it ever gets.
Many of us bloggers are used to being out and about and then posting about it. Only problem now is that we’re not out and about. I’ve spent most of the last three months at home. In doing so, I’m hardly the first of my colleagues to turn my attention to the birds in my backyard. They are neither rare nor exotic: sparrows and grackles with an occasional robin or cardinal. But they’re interesting to keep an eye on. And I’ve convinced myself that they squawk at me when the bird feeder is empty.
Songs about jukeboxes are nothing new. If fact, that go as far back as Perry Como.
All your lunchtime money goes down the slot
You could live on air if the music’s hot
You just ain’t quittin’ till ya rock that clock around
(Choo-choo-wah, choo-choo-wah, shooby-doo-wah)
Jukebox baby, you’re the swingin’-est doll in town
By far the most common jukebox song is what I’d call the “cry in your beer dirge.” These songs feature a guy sitting in a bar who has lost his wife or girlfriend or lover. And, of course, what comes on the jukebox? Well, it’s what used to be “our song.”
In the corner of my mind stands a jukebox
It’s playing all my favorite memories
One by one they take me back
To the days when you were mine
And i can’t stop this jukebox in my mind
I want a drink, and here’s a twenty
And bring my change in dimes
There’s a song on the jukebox
I want to hear a thousand times
It used to be our love song
We played it here before
So let’s be sure it’s playing
When she walks through that door
Only one way to put a stop to all this sadness,
Bubba shot the jukebox last night
Said it played a sad song it made him cry
Went to his truck and got a forty five
Bubba shot the jukebox stopped it with one shot
But wait, it’s not all sadness. In an era before online dating, you could find love right beside the jukebox.
If I didn’t have a dime and I didn’t take the time
To play the jukebox
Oh, Saturday night would’ve been a sad
And lonely night for me
And if you weren’t standin’ there
Ruby lips and golden hair, beside the jukebox
Oh, I’d have lost my chance
To hold you while you danced withme
I never appreciated that there was any connection between the jukebox and religion. But Wynonna did.
Jesus and a jukebox brings comfort to his soul
One says he’ll see her again, one helps him let her go
Carries that old cross right down to the last bar on the block
Praise the Lord and thank God for Jesus and a jukebox
While some may see the connection between the jukebox and Jesus Christ, others associate it with “cheatin’ women.”
Anywhere there’s a jukebox and a flashing neon sign
Anywhere there’s a woman with cheatin’ on her mind
Anywhere there’s music and warm red wine
That’s where you’ll find me until it’s closin’ time
Anywhere there’s a jukebox. Apparently they’re even a thing in Siberia. Possibly the live music scene isn’t that vibrant there.
There is precious little chance that you are going to walk into a casual restaurant or diner today and find a jukebox sitting at the end of your booth or table. Scrolling through the choices was always a great way to entertain yourself while waiting for your food. And waiting for your songs to play helped prolong a leisurely meal.
The jukebox is not nearly as prevalent as it was in its roughly two-decades long heyday starting in the late 1940’s. But it hasn’t gone away either. If you’re a collector you can find yourself a classic Wurlitzer that has been refurbished. You might have to drop $20,000 for that. At the other end of the spectrum you can buy a table-top digital jukebox to drop on your mantle for about $150 and then use it to play the music stored on your phone.
Jukeboxes first became popular in bars, although at the time they might have been called saloons or speakeasies or juke joints. They expanded their reach to diners, restaurants, soda fountains, even drugstores and laundromats. Now they’re mostly back where they started, in bars.
If you’re a bar-owner and you’re thinking about a juikebox, there are two ways you can go. You can look backward, or you can look forward. Some bars have opted for the classic jukebox, the big flashy chrome and lights cabinet with the big speakers and the big sound. But more have switched to the digital jukebox which may not look like much more than a touch screen hanging on the wall.
Two new jukeboxes represent the two different types you’ll find in today’s bars: The Rock-Ola Bubbler Vinyl 45 and the TouchTunes Angelina.
Rock-Ola bills itself as “America’s last authentic jukebox.” It’s history supports that claim. They been building jukeboxes since 1927. Rock-Ola was one of what was known as the big four jukebox manufacturers. It is the last one standing.
The company’s most recent model, the Bubbler Vinyl 45 is a testament to that legacy. While more modern jukeboxes switched from vinyl to CD’s or DVD’s, the Bubbler houses 45’s, 100 of them. Played on two sides that produces 200 song choices. Exactly like the jukeboxes in the 50’s. (Although the Bubbler can also bring in music via Bluetooth.)
The new Rock-Ola machine also reflects the design standards of an earlier era. It has a die-cast metal grille and eight light-up bubble tubes. It retails for $9,295.
While Rock-Ola is the largest manufacturer of classic jukeboxes, TouchTunes is the leader when it comes to digital jukeboxes. You may remember the Joan Jett song in which she sang “put another dime in the jukebox, baby.” (I Love Rock and Roll) Well if it was a TouchTunes jukebox, that line might have been more like “put another ten on the credit card, baby.”
You “play” these digital jukeboxes by going to the TouchTunes app on your phone. You never have to leave your bar seat. You can get 12 credits for $5, 24 credits for $10. Or you can be ‘that guy’ and buy even more. The app works with a location tracker so, unless you’re a hacker, you can’t juke bomb the bar across town.
The latest TouchTunes model, the Angelina, takes up just 24 inches of vertical wall space. It offers something called a wall wash light show that is triggered by the music. Technically it offers modular, removable components.
The promotional blurb on the TouchTunes web site offers the following: “Music is core to the TouchTunes experience and our latest smart jukebox allows the interface to learn from the music most played in a location and adapt over time to highlight the songs, artists and search results that are most relevant. Our leading mobile app lets users find nearby jukebox locations and control their in-venue music experience from their smartphones. Since launch, the app has been downloaded over 8 million times. Also available on the jukebox is our integrated photo booth solution and a first fully licensed commercial karaoke system.”
There are some 65,000-75,000 TouchTunes systems installed. They are cheaper (you can’t spend more than maybe $2,500 on a digital system), they’re easier to maintain, and they offer more music choices. But not everyone is a fan.
In an article in the Atlantic with the headline “Digital Jukeboxes Are Eroding the Dive-Bar Experience,” Lauren Michele Jackson writes “TouchTunes erodes the premise of quaint regionalism as bars of all kinds transform into Top 40 danceries.”
Phillymag.com writer Dan McQuade offers a similar lament: “The soundtrack of every bar is slowly becoming the same.”
And Fast Company’s John Paul Titlow adds this concern: “Put this thing on my phone and get a couple cocktails in me, and I’ll be blowing through my hard-earned disposable income in no time.”
If you are a fan of independent professional baseball, or even if you just live in a town that has an independent team, this is a must see. The ‘Battered Bastards’ are the 1973-1977 Portland Mavericks. They were at the time the only independent professional baseball team in the United States. They played in a Class A affiliated league, the Northwest League.
You would think that with its vast scouting network and multiple team minor league system that all of the best ballplayers in America get signed into the MLB ;system. But as fans of the Somerset Patriots, the Long Island Ducks, the St. Paul Saints and others know to this day, there’s plenty of good players that have fallen out of that organization or never got into it. Usually because at some point they were deemed too old or too small or too flaky.
The Portland Mavericks were proof of that. As they were putting the team together I was reminded of Major League. They had a left-handed catcher, a manager who would later end up in jail and a star player who disappeared but some suspect was in the witness protection program. A 24-year-old woman served as general manager. One player went on to invent Big League Chew and another became an Academy Award nominated filmmaker. And they had Jim Bouton, the former New York Yankees star pitcher who was blackballed by Major League Baseball because of his book Ball Four.
The team was the brainchild of Bing Russell, a former actor whose most notable role was on the supporting cast of Bonanza. He is the father of Kurt Russell who narrates a good part of the story. One especially excellent segment is when the filmmakers show a Northwest League championship game with no narration, just telling the story with the original footage.
MLB doesn’t come off looking very good. The Mavericks had replaced a failed Triple-A Portland team that faded and eventually moved out. The Mavs set minor league attendance records. But having revived the Portland market for baseball they were bullied out by organized baseball who placed another triple-A team there. One that also failed. And as for the championship game…the Mavericks lost to an affiliated team who dropped players down from a higher level to make sure the outlaws didn’t win.
There are now four or five independent leagues and several dozen teams. At a time when MLB is considering a controversial plan to reduce the number of minor league teams, this documentary makes you feel like maybe there’ll be another Portland Mavericks in the future.
(available on Netflix)
As baseball came to a complete halt in March, the main topic of discussion was cheating. As in the sign-stealing the Houston Astros, and very possibly the Boston Red Sox, were involved in. Already it had taken down the GM and manager of the Astros and the managers of the Red Sox and Mets, both former Astros. So it seems entirely appropriate to watch a documentary about the previous generation of cheaters in baseball.
Screwball has nothing to do with the pitch. The lead man in this story is Tony Bosch, a Cuban-American kid in South Florida who wanted to be a baseball player. He wasn’t good enough so he then sought to follow in the footsteps of his father and become a doctor. Best he could do for that was a medical school in Belize from which he got a degree that never allowed him to be licensed in the U.S. He eventually went into the anti-aging business, starting a firm called Biogenesis. Fast forward a bit and he’s the PED supplier to Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun, Melky Cabrera, Bartolo Colon and countless others.
There are lots of pretty shocking parts to this story, such as:
Parents would bring their high school athlete kids to Bosch.
Alex Rodriguez supposedly was the one who ratted out Braun, as well as his teammate Fransisco Cervelli, because he thought the more players who were involved, the less he’d be singled out. (Remember A-Rod is the highest paid player in baseball and at the time Cerveli was probably around the minimum wage, substantial though that may seem to us.)
But the real shocker comes with Major League Baseball’s investigation after a local Miami paper broke the story. MLB paid $100,000+ to a crook who stole documents out of a witness’s car. They paid Bosch, possibly in seven figures, for his cooperation. Meanwhile Rodriguez’ ‘people’ were working to pay some of the same folks to not cooperate. The guy responsible for this investigation… Rob Manfred, who is now commissioner of baseball. Wonder how the investigation of the sign-stealers is going?
One really odd thing about this documentary is that the director uses what appears to be 12-13 year olds to reenact some of the scenes between these characters, including Bosch and Rodriguez. I understand that real footage might have been scarce, you’re unlikely to get a video of Bosch shooting up Rodriguez in the bathroom of a club, but the middle school style reenactments? Maybe that’s the reason for the title Screwball.
(available on Netflix)
No No: A Documentary
Dock Ellis was the ace pitcher for a Pittsburgh Pirates team that included Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell. He started an all-star game. He pitched in the World Series. He was the pitcher in a 1971 game when the Pirates started nine black players, a first for Major League Baseball.
So why is this movie called No No? Because of the no-hitter Ellis pitched in 1971. A sloppy no-hitter that included a pile of walks and hit batsman, but a no-hitter nonetheless. A no-hitter that he pitched while on LSD. “My teammates knew I was high but they didn’t know on what,” Ellis said. He added that he couldn’t even see the batters he just knew there was someone on the right side or the left. He said he never pitched a game in the major leagues when he wasn’t on drugs. Sometimes he took 14 or 15 pills before a start. He did it to calm his fear of failure.
Dock Ellis was a proud, militant black man who had no problems expressing that. If Jackie Robinson belonged to the civil rights movement, Dock Ellis belonged to the Black Power movement. He wanted to be the Muhammed Alli of baseball. He was also one crazy dude. Probably the first major league player to wear an earring. Once he came to the mound with curlers in his hair. (He got suspended.) He started a game against the hated Cincinnati Reds and drilled the first three batters before being taken out of the game.
Ellis did make a comeback after retiring from baseball. He sobered up, went back to school and became a substance abuse counselor. He worked with ballplayers, convicts, students and seemingly was pretty good at it.
There’s a lot of serious stuff here, but this is also a fun movie. Much of the story is told in interviews with Ellis mimself. We also hear from numerous teammates including Al Oliver, Dave Cash, Manny Sanguillen and Steve Blass. One of them notes that when they had to play a day game there wasn’t a guy on the team who wasn’t hung over. Another commented that if you played for the Pirates at the time and got traded to another team, you were going to find that team boring.
Dock Ellis was a guy who refused to fit the mold that MLB wants their players to drop into. None of his teammates seem to regret having had him on the team.
(available on Amazon Prime)
A one-hour documentary that was part of a PBS series called American Masters. As most baseball fans probably know Ted Williams was an immeasurably great baseball player and an immeasurably difficult personality. He had a long career that was twice interrupted, not entirely voluntarily, by stints as a Marine pilot in World War II and the Korean War. He was an all-star, a triple crown winner, an MVP, a Hall of Famer.
He also hated sportswriters. Because of the occasional criticism or booing of some fans he refused to tip his cap to the fans, a baseball standard for home run hitters, throughout his career. He was foul mouthed and hot headed. He wasn’t very good at marriage, which he tried three times, and was likewise lacking as a father.
The Ted Williams story is anything but heartwarming. But there are a couple stories here that show a different side to his character. In 1941, the year that he hit .400 (hasn’t been done since), he went into the last day of the season hitting exactly .400 and his manager offered to have his sit out the final day’s doubleheader to preserve that distinguished mark. He refused, played both games, went 6 for 8, and raised his average to .406. Another positive piece of biography involved his acceptance speech at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Despite being asked not to, he mentioned how great Negro League players like Josh Gibson and Sachel Paige belonged in the hall even though the major leagues never game them the chance. Williams was Mexican-American, though he seemed to go to great lengths to bury his heritage.
There is a lot of great footage here and not just of Williams’ exploits on the diamond. There is an interview with Williams by Bob Costas, extensive comments by his daughter, and a number of other major leaguers who offer up their views, including Willie McCovey, Jim Kaat, Wade Boggs and a particularly effusive Joey Votto.
Ultimately there’s just so much about Ted Williams that makes you scratch your head. Not the least of which is the fact that after his death his body was frozen or freeze dried or some such thing. I’m no more clear on that after watching this documentary.
(available to subscribers on the PBS app or to buy or rent on Apple TV or Amazon Prime)
Of course the mother of all baseball documentaries is the 9-part, 18 or so hour Ken Burns Baseball. It was available for streaming at the PBS app once the baseball world went into shutdown. Like all of Burns’ documentaries it has amazing footage, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Sachel Page, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and pretty much all of the greatest stars of the game.
One of the greatest strengths of the film is telling the story of blacks in baseball. The Negro Leagues and their stars are not only covered but in fact treated pretty much as equals. There’s mention of Fleet Walker, a 19th century catcher, who was really the first black major league ballplayer and it devotes a lot of time to baseball’s greatest story, Jackie Robinson. We hear from Curt Flood, whose career ended when he chose to take on the reserve clause, and Burns is there to remind us all along the way of how blacks are under-represented at management level both in the dugout and front office. He also is quick to expose baseball’s racists ranging from Cap Anson to Kennesaw Mountain Landis to Enos Country Slaughter.
I do think he misses the mark in not telling the story of the emergence of Latin ballplayers. Who was the first Latin player? The first to come from Cuba? What did Tony Oliva of the Twins mean to aspiring Cuban players and what did the Dodgers’ Fernando Valenzuela mean to Mexican-American fans. The documentary is more than 25 years old and ends with the 1980’s, yet even then I think you could see how important the influx of Latin players would be to the game.
The film was a little heavy on literary types philosophizing on the larger meaning of the game. Takes the fun out of it. But I surely enjoyed hearing from Mario Cuomo about his short-lived baseball career and there are great interviews with Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams and Curt Flood.
Despite these disappointments, this is baseball history 101, the unabridged version. I consider taking the time to watch it one of the few benefits of sheltering in place for so long.
(available at no charge on the PBS app while the baseball season is locked out by the coronavirus)
Teenagers in leather jackets. Sitting on the fender of a shiny, wide-body car. Hanging at the local soda fountain or in the diner. It’s the 1950’s. The soundtrack is rock and roll. And it’s playing on a jukebox. You could see it in the movie American Graffiti. The Fonz was leaning on one in the TV show Happy Days. It’s a must for every 50’s style burger and shake place. The jukebox is a symbol of the 50’s lifestyle. It represents the emergence of teens as trendsetters. It is a symbol of how young Americans thought of themselves and the world around them, and of course, the music they would listen too.
Just about every form of music that is uniquely American, whether it’s jazz, country, rhythm and blues or rock and roll, owes at least a part of its popularity and growth to the exposure provided by the jukebox. Each started out as a form of music that was outside the mainstream, looked down upon by parents, if not their kids, and at least initially shut out of radio and TV. As far back as the 20’s, the machines that had not yet been christened jukeboxes were playing what at the time was called “race” and “hillbilly” music, music that would come to be known as jazz, blues and country.
In its formative years the jukebox was color blind in a world that was anything but. No black performers had a radio show until the MIlls Brothers were signed by CBS in 1929. Most record companies didn’t market the recordings of black artists to white audiences. This despite the fact that during a four year period in the mid-1920’s Bessie Smith, an African-American blues singer, sold six million records. Many radio stations at the time, and for some time after, wouldn’t play black artists. Jazz was the most popular music of the era and it was embraced by white audiences as well as black, especially young white audiences, but not by the folks who controlled the airwaves.
Many black jazz musicians were also involved in a brief experiment with video jukeboxes, starting in 1939. The Panoram was the most popular of the video jukeboxes and it played three-minute video music clips called “soundies,” a predecessor of the videos that would become popular on MTV in the 1980’s. Among the artists producing soundies were Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole.
Like the black jazz and blues musicians, the artists who made what was at the time called “hillbilly” music were largely absent from the era’s most popular and prevalent home entertainment medium, the radio. And like the creators of “race” music, “hillbilly” music got its airings on the jukebox. During the Depression in the 1930’s it has been estimated that about one-fourth of record sales were of hillbilly music and that most of those sales were going to jukeboxes (Discovering Country Music, Don Cusic). By 1944, Billboard had created its first country music chart. It was called “Most Played Juke Box Hillbilly Records.” It lasted until 1958. In the 40’s Billboard also had a “race records” chart.
The older generation of the 50’s and the media and music outlets they controlled were similarly slow to embrace rock and roll. But the start of a new half-century saw a new generation of teens, more empowered and prosperous than their predecessors. And they brought the jukebox along with them. Up until the 50’s, jukeboxes were primarily to be found in bars, and often the seedier bars as that. They were, therefore, primarily used by adults.
By the time the 50’s were in full swing, you could find jukeboxes in diners, soda fountains, drug stores, military barracks, video arcades and laundromats. And the teenagers of the 50’s were right there with them. (Well, maybe not the laundromats.) What is the most played song ever on jukeboxes in America? Hound Dog by Elvis Presley, 1955. Also among the top six are Elvis’ Don’t Be Cruel (1956) and Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock (1955). (The second most popular song ever on jukeboxes is the country music classic Crazy, by Patsy Cline.)
Jukeboxes continued to fuel record sales. By the late 40’s when 45’s replaced 78’s as much as three-quarters of the records sold went to jukeboxes. Record companies often sent their new recordings to jukeboxes first as a way to test market new songs.
Jukeboxes of the era reflected the style of the 50’s. They were bright and shiny, lots of chrome, bright colors and tube lights. Stylistically similar to the trendier cars of the era.
The diners themselves stopped looking like old railroad cars and took on the same shiny metal, bright lights image.
By the mid-60’s the oversized influence of the jukebox on American music and culture was fading away. But, in the words of Richard Havers, writing for the web site udiscovermusic.com, “standing around the record machine, deciding what to play, is an enduring image of a bygone era of uninterrupted happiness.”