Today in History: May 3

The New York Yankees beat the St. Louis Browns 14-5 at Yankee Stadium 80 years ago today. In left field for the Yankees was Joe DiMaggio, making his major league debut. He went three-for-six.

About 50 years later, Joe DiMaggio took a seat behind a card table on a stage in the school auditorium in Albany, NY; a line of autograph collectors assembled on the right side, at the three-step stairs that are on both sides of a school stage; they had paid some eight dollars or so a pop to bring a piece of paper (purchased there as well) up onto the stage, where they would have their few moments with the Yankee Clipper.

Those on the single-file line were to make their way across the stage and down the opposite side where the lucky purchasers of a shared moment with “The Great DiMaggio” would file back down onto the sales floor. A bizarre graduation of sorts: before an encounter with Joe DiMaggio in person and then diploma’ed for life. My friend and I, both of us too poor to afford the extra money for the autograph and shared moment, considered it luck enough to be in the same space as DiMaggio. Or so we told ourselves.

From the open floor, where the vendors had set up their tables of team yearbooks and media guides from past seasons and complete sets of baseball cards, an old man yelled up at the stage (he was maybe ten feet from DiMaggio). He had not left his winter coat in his car, unlike most everyone else, so he looked like he had wandered in, rather than paid five dollars to get in—baseball card shows, where you pay money for the privilege to spend money. He looked like he had wandered in. “Hey Joe! Joe!”

Joe DiMaggio looked up. “Hi.” A little wary, but not worried-seeming. Quizzical. “Howareyou.” A statement, not a question, and he looked back down to his autographing duties.

“Do you remember” so-and-so? the old man inquired. “He used to work at” a street corner somewhere in the Bronx.

DiMaggio looked up again, said “Suresure,” one syllable, and nodded his head in a way that communicated to all nearby that he had no idea what the old man was asking but that we around him should not mind. He looked back down at his autographing duties. The old man continued, told Joe that the other party was doing well, even now in old age. Message delivered, he wandered off, and I hope he was very happy to have spent a couple moments with the “Great DiMaggio,” as Hemingway’s old man thought of him.

I am not an autograph collector, though I have owned a few over the years. I feel privileged that I have that memory of Joe DiMaggio rather than a signed piece of paper, which I probably would have lost in my many moves and life-mistakes, and thus might have no memory of the actual moment spent close to the Yankee great.

* * * *

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
 
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
 
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
—John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields”

A Canadian soldier and poet named John McCrae wrote “In Flanders Fields” in response to presiding over a funeral of a fellow soldier following the second Battle of Ypres in World War I on this date in 1915.

The second Battle of Ypres lasted a month and was the first in which Germany used mustard gas on the Western Front. Both sides saw tens of thousands of soldiers die; about 150,000 in all.

McCrae described the horrifying scene in a letter: “For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds. … And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.”

The dead soldier, Alexis Helmer, had been a friend, so McCrae presided over the funeral himself. He noticed, he wrote, that the poppies grew particularly fast around the freshly dug graves of the soldiers. On May 3, 1915, he dashed off the poem while sitting in the back of an ambulance.

Dissatisfied with it, McCrae tossed the poem away, but his friends retrieved it and kept it. Un-revised, it was published in Punch magazine late in 1915. It is through this poem that we have the association with poppies and World War I and war. McCrae himself died during the war, in 1918.

* * * *

“I wish to acknowledge your choice of my novel Arrowsmith for the Pulitzer Prize. That prize I must refuse, and my refusal would be meaningless unless I explained the reasons. All prizes, like all titles, are dangerous. The seekers for prizes tend to labor not for inherent excellence but for alien rewards; they tend to write this, or timorously to avoid writing that, in order to tickle the prejudices of a haphazard committee.”—Sinclair Lewis

Two earlier novels by Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt and Main Street, had been selected for the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel (now the prize for fiction) but they had not won. Each time, Lewis learned, his novel was a finalist on its way to win the prize when the trustees overruled the vote, the first time for Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and the second time for Willa Cather’s One of Ours.

When he learned that his latest, Arrowsmith, won the Pulitzer, 90 years ago today, Lewis was ready with a reply: “All prizes, like all titles, are dangerous.” Some biographers suggest (and Lewis has been singularly unlucky in his biographers) that Lewis did so with an eagle eye on the bottom line: a headline-grabbing act of turning down a $1000 prize was probably worth more than $1000 in book sales. He accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930.

* * * *
Jerzy Kosiński died 25 years ago today. John Joseph Cardinal O’Connor died 16 years ago today.

* * * *
Niccolò Machiavelli was born on this date in 1469. Bing Crosby was born on this date in 1903. May Sarton was born on this date in 1912. William Inge was born in 1913 on this date. Pete Seeger was born on this date in 1919. Sugar Ray Robinson was born on this date in 1921. James Brown was born on this date in 1933. Doug Henning would be 69.

* * * *
Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies is 84 today. Frankie Valli is 82 today. Ron Popeil is 81. Greg Gumbel is 70. Mary Hopkin is 66. Christopher Cross is 65. Christina Hendricks is 41.

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