Wednesday, 15 April 2015

THE MIGHTY BUFFALO

The last of the Canadian Bisons, 1902, photo by Steele and Company
(Canadian Public Domain)
You can call them American bison or American buffalo. If you prefer the more standard Buffalo identification, the official plural form can be spelled either Buffalos or Buffaloes. Whatever you choose to call them, it doesn’t matter because these huge animals are mean, bad-tempered specimens. And they are tough: like their meat, unless tenderized. They are the largest and heaviest mammal in North America. An average buffalo is 6-feet-plus in height, 10-12 feet in length, and 900-2000 pounds on the weigh scales, if you can get one of these SOB’s to step on one. They can run 35-40 miles per hour and jump an incredible six feet high. They can live 18-22 years in the wild, and 25-30 years in captivity. They also have a rich history: millions roamed the North American plains in the early-to-mid-1800’s. Then, by the end of the nineteenth century, they were dangerously close to extinction.

What happened? And how are they coming along since.

For centuries, there has been two subspecies of North American bison: the plains bison and the wood bison. The plains bison grazed freely in an area that covered the central United States (with points east and west from there) and the southern portions of three prairie Canadian provinces: Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. As far back as the early-to-mid 1700’s, in fact, before settling of the continent pushed westward from the far east, bison herds were spotted in almost every US state.

The wood bison were also known as mountain bison. They lived in the far north, grazing throughout Alaska and the Canadian Yukon; and the northern portions of British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. To differentiate between the two subspecies, the wood bison were larger animals with their highest point--the hump--on its body ahead of the front legs; while the plains bison’s hump was more round, making its highest point directly above the front legs.

At their height in the middle 1850’s, the North American bison--or buffalo--were numbered anywhere between 30-70 million. Some estimates even close in on 100 million. Whatever the numbers, they were a dominant source of food, clothing, and miscellaneous tools and weapons for the Plains Indians. Then along came progress, the white man, settling the West, and overhunting of the great animal: slaughtering them was more like it. One of the reasons to kill them off was to crush the Plains Indians way of life, forcing the natives onto reservations. Another, commercial hunters highly valued Buffalo hides, which were larger and heavier than cattle hides. Their hooves and horns were used for the making of glue, their hair for furniture stuffing, and their durable skins for machine industrial belts back east.

In addition, buffalo herds were too destructive for farmers and ranchers. They were a menace and had to go. They destroyed crops, fences, buildings, and even rail tracks. Buffalo were also hunted for the mere sport of it. Their stuffed heads hung inside a library were impressive: a sign of someone’s manhood. And, last but not least by any means, buffalo bones made for excellent fertilizer and healthy calcium for livestock feed. Consumers of quality buffalo bones were the sugar and wine industries: in particular, buffalo bone ash made sugar more shiny and wine less cloudy.

After the giant slaughter, buffalo bones were a lucrative business venture for a number of years on the Canadian and American prairies. It all started with the coming of the railroad and the appearance of the first settlers. Buffalo bones bleached from the sun lay around virtually everywhere: out in the open, and especially in coulees and along river banks. In Western Canada, for example, the bones  were first gathered up around  1883 and taken to rail centers such as Regina, Moose Jaw, Saskatoon, Swift Current, Medicine Hat and Calgary where they were sold per ton (about 100 skeletons made a ton) and shipped east to the manufacturing sites. 

Before the planting and harvesting of wheat could turn a profit for those involved, buffalo bone gathering was the farmers’  first cash crop, and--believe it or not--for a number of years was the West’s largest export. Removing the bones also cleared the land to make way for future plowing and wheat planting. Estimates of the bones shipped from Moose Jaw, alone, represented well over one million buffalo. But, the bone business all came crashing down when the “Panic of 1893” hit, the worst North American depression up to that time. The industrial eastern seaboard was affected first, shutting down that side of the buffalo bone venture. Then again, the prairies had been picked clean of buffalo bones, anyway.


Buffalo Bones loaded onto a CPR freight train in Moose Jaw,
Northwest Territories, 1885 
(Canadian Public Domain)
By then, the great American buffalo-bison numbers were down to approximately 600 head, if that. But some American and Canadian ranchers came to the rescue, intent on preserving the animal for generations to come. Today, about 500,000 buffalo exist in various national parks and reserves, wildlife areas and non-public lands in Canada and the United States. Out of these, only 15,000 are free-range, not confined to any fencing. Yellowstone National park has a herd of 4,000 plains bison. Wood Buffalo National Park, whose boundaries encompass parts of Alberta and the North West Territories, has a wood bison herd numbering 10,000. Most of the 500,000 mentioned earlier are not pure bison: they’re hybrids, containing cattle DNA, having been cross-bred with cattle and thus semi-domesticated and being raised as livestock. Only about 20,000 buffalo in total throughout North America are considered “pure.”

I’ve eaten Buffalo meat a couple times. Not any steaks, though. Buffalo burgers, as they call them. One was pure buffalo, the other mixed 50-50 with beef. I don’t remember any difference. They were both very tasty. All in all, it was similar to beef. According to studies, buffalo meat is lower in fat and cholesterol and higher in protein than beef.

Not that long ago, in September, 2009, I saw a small buffalo herd in a fenced-in area along the Number One Highway in Saskatchewan near Indian Head, between Broadview and Regina: perhaps, around 30 head, from what I can remember. When I pulled my rented car over and climbed out with camera in hand, the herd - skittish, I guess -scattered before I could take a decent picture. I was at least a hundred feet away, and I was quiet, too. But they still didn’t trust me. Impressive animals to see live, they were.


I often wonder what it would’ve been like to set back the clock to the mid-nineteenth century when the prairies were still grasslands, and see for myself one of those massive Buffalo herds that shook the ground during one of their mighty stampedes. 

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

TWO PITCHERS TURNED AUTHORS

Jim Brosnan, 1962. Topps trading card
(Courtesy of The Topps Company, Inc.)
When Jim Brosnan’s unique book, The Long Season, hit the scene in 1960, it changed sportswriting forever. “Ballplayers are supposed to have their opinions written for them by sportswriters,” Brosnan wrote in the book. Here was Brosnan--a baseball player--who was not only opinionated, but he could also speak and write for himself. In other words: a scholar. My word! No pun intended.

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1929, James Patrick Brosnan, a six-foot-four, 210-pound right hander,  first came to the majors in 1954 with the Chicago Cubs, but didn’t stick until he came back in 1956. Used as a middle reliever and spot starter, he was traded mid-season 1958 to the St Louis Cardinals.  Nicknamed “The Professor,” he indeed looked like one. He wore glasses. He spoke fluently. And in the off-season he worked for an advertising agency in Chicago.

Early 1959, Brosnan began writing a personal journal about his entire coming season in the big leagues from spring training to late September. The Long Season was an inside view of the game from a ballplayer who knew how to express himself in a funny, honest, well-written and interesting way. Announcer  Joe Garagiola called Brosnan a “kookie beatnik” for his comments; while famed sportswriter Jimmy Cannon said Brosnan’s literary creation  was “the greatest baseball book ever written.”

Brosnan admitted that players drank, including himself, who preferred martinis with olives, oftentimes with his wife once he was home from the road. He mentioned players taking certain available drugs to help in their performance: Decadron, for example.  He used such then-taboo words as “bastards” and phrases  “what the hell!” and “a horse’s ass.” He called announcer Harry Caray “an old blabbermouth.” Referring to Seals Stadium, where the San Francisco Giants first played when the team moved west (while Candlestick was being constructed), Brosnan said: “San Francisco’s ball park is another pitcher’s hell.”

While Sal “The Barber” Maglie was attempting to hang on as a pitcher with the Cardinals at age 42 (he was released before the regular season started), Brosnan said of him, affectionately: “Sal is not a pleasant-looking man--he looks like an ad for the Mafia.” Also, throughout the first half of the book, it was plain to see that Brosnan never saw eye to eye with manager Solly Hemus, who insisted that Brosnan be the team’s long reliever.

After a mediocre start to the 1959 season, Brosnan was traded in early June to the Cincinnati Reds for another pitcher, Hal Jeffcoat. The trade was fine with Brosnan because Fred Hutchinson was the new manager for the Reds and Brosnan’s ex-manager in St Louis before being fired with 10 games left to go in 1958. The two had got along well in St Louis and would continue to do so in Cincinnati.

Brosnan and his new manager got along so well, in fact, that by 1960, Hutchinson inserted Brosnan into the right-handed closer role where he blossomed with a 7-2 mark, 57 relief appearances (two starts), 12 saves, and a 2.36 ERA. Bill Henry, from the left side, responded with 17 saves and a 3.19 ERA. Although the Reds finished sixth in the 1960 standings, they led the National League with 35 total saves. Better things were expected of the Reds for 1961. Just in time for another Brosnan book, after one year off from his diary note-taking. Titled Pennant Race, it was more than a sequel to The Long Season. Just as good, if not better.

In the introduction to Pennant Race, Brosnan said, “Never taken seriously as pennant contenders, the Reds found ways and means to win often enough in the season of ’61. How and why they won the pennant is the subject of my book.” The Reds won the 1961 National League pennant, their first in 21 years, with a 93-61 record, four games up on the second-place Los Angeles Dodgers. Brosnan enjoyed himself by contributing mightily: 10 wins, 16 saves and 3.04 ERA in 53 games.

By 1961, the Giants were now playing in the new Candlestick Park. “That wind-blown tunnel down by the Bay,” as one sportswriter once spoke of it. Often windy and cool, even in the dead of summer, Brosnan hated Candlestick as much as Seals Stadium, calling it “The grossest error in the history of major league baseball.” Sidenote: During the 1961 All-Star Game at Candlestick Park, Giants pitcher Stu Miller was actually blown off the mound by a sudden wind gust.

My favorite phrase in Pennant Race was Brosnan’s reference to being a pro: “Beer makes some players happy. Winning ball games makes some players happy. Cashing checks makes me delirious with joy.” I like to use the last sentence on occasion even today. For years, my family had wondered why I would often say that until I finally told them.

While Brosnan’s two extensive literary ventures opened the public to the baseball locker room, Jim Bouton’s Ball Four came along and ripped the doors right off the hinges. Written in a similar diary style to Brosnan’s two masterpieces, Bouton described his day-to-day 1969 season in which he split between three teams--Vancouver Mounties of the Pacific Coast League, Seattle Pilots of the American League and Houston Astros of the National League--as a knuckleballer a few short years after throwing his right arm out with the New York Yankees chucking too many fastballs and overhand curves.

Besides both authors being traded mid-season during the writing of their first books, they shared many other similarities. They had the same first name and the same initials. They were nicknamed “Meat” by their wives. I wonder why? Sal Maglie is mentioned in detail in both books. Bouton had him as a pitching coach for the Pilots and said that he looked like the “friendly neighborhood undertaker.” Is that one step up or down from Brosnan’s Mafia identification? Like Brosnan, with his “Professor” nickname away from home, Bouton was known as “Bulldog” to his teammates. Last but not least, both players were relief pitchers at the time of their writing prowess.
 Jim Bouton, 1963, Baseball Digest photo
(US Public Domain)

In Ball Four, Bouton was funny, informative, and used many colorful metaphors. He  took a lot more liberties than Brosnan by admitting that players often drank too much, swore a lot, engaged in sneaky “beaver shooting,” took greenies (amphetamines), sampled illicit sex  on the road, and implied that a good number of individuals  in management were liars. He also reminisced about his years with the New York Yankees in great detail.

When Commissioner Bowie Kuhn got drift of a few Ball Four excerpts displayed in Look magazine in early June 1970, a few weeks before the book’s release, he called a meeting with Bouton where he demanded that Bouton declare it was all fiction. Bouton refused. When this piece of information hit the news, people couldn’t wait to open up their wallets, buy the book and read for themselves the juicy secrets held inside. In reality, Kuhn’s reaction to Ball Four helped the overall sales.

Ball Four
became one of the best-selling baseball books--if not sports books--of all time, although Bouton was shunned for years by many baseball players, coaches, managers, and executives for spilling the beans and naming names. His former Yankee teammates were especially ticked with him, including players Roger Maris, Elston Howard, Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra for what he said about the Mick such as his partying too much instead of taking better care of himself and how he was snotty to reporters, just about making them crawl and beg for a minute of his time, as Bouton so vividly wrote in the book. Bouton also revealed that Howard and Berra used to drag their “junk” across the team’s locker room cold cuts. He  called Roger Maris a “loafer” for how he ran down to first on ground outs and he let us know Whitey Ford threw mud balls and scuff balls to fool the batters.

On a lighter note, Bouton picked on Pilots manager Joe Schultz, Astros manager Harry “The Hat” Walker, Yankees manager Ralph Houk and liked to make fun of “company men” in general.  One such employee was Pilots bullpen coach Eddie O’Brien whose job Bouton felt a monkey could do. Also, Joe Pepitone apparently wore two different hairpieces: a smaller, tighter one for the game to fit under his helmet and his hat, then a larger one off the field. Outside of baseball, readers loved Ball Four for its honest depiction of life in the majors. New Yorker writer Roger Angell called it “the funniest book of the year.”

Today, all three tell-all journals, The Long Season, Pennant Race, and Ball Four, are considered classics of baseball literature. They have been in my baseball library for a number of years, going back to when I had purchased a first edition of The Long Season at a second-hand bookstore in Regina, Saskatchewan in the early 1970’s for a whole $2.50.  It’s still one of my prized possessions.


Evaluating these three books for this article was like doing a book report on them, but a lot more fun than the boring book reports I had been forced to do in high school.