THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)





"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

FRED HARMAN: Cowboy Cartoonist



Leslie Fred Harman (1902-1982) was an American artist and cartoonist best known for his creation of the Red Ryder comic strip.  The strip was so popular that at its peak it ran in 750 newspapers and reached forty million readers.

Harman was born in St. Joseph Missouri in 1902, but when he was just two months old, his parents moved back to Pagosa Springs, Colorado.  It was there in that scenic setting that he grew up on a ranch and among horses.  His formal schooling ended after just seven years and he never received any formal art training. However, it must have been a natural talent that required little or no training since his two younger brothers also became cartoonists.

Beginning at age twenty, he worked as an animator at the Kansas City Film Ad Company.  Among his co-workers were his two brothers, Hugh and Walker, and a fellow by the name of Disney.  In fact, Harman and Disney decided to go into business for themselves, but their company, Kaycee Studios, folded after a year.  It was then that Harman headed back to Pagosa Springs.

The following years saw him working at various jobs including advertising.  He and a partner formed their own agency but it failed after a few years.  He did marry musician Lola Andrews and they had a son in 1927.  Six years later the family moved to Los Angeles where he began a Western magazine that – you guessed it – failed.  Only three issues were published.


Bronc Peeler

From 1934 to 1938, he syndicated a Western cartoon strip titled Bronc Peeler, but not many newspapers were interested.  His luck began to change when he moved to New York in 1938.  There he met Stephen Slesinger, a merchandizing genius who helped him in the evolution of Bronc Peeler into Red Ryder.  The redheaded cowboy first rode the range in November of that year.




Promoting Red Ryder as “America’s famous fighting cowboy,” Slesinger began doing what he did best, which was merchandising and licensing.  What followed were Big Little Books, novels, a movie serial, a radio program, and twenty-seven feature movies and numerous merchandizing promotions including, of course, the Daisy Red Ryder BB gun, still produced to this day. Not only that, it holds the longest continuing license in the history of the licensing industry.



In 1941, Fred and Lola bought a spread in the Blanco Basin.   They named it the Red Ryder Ranch.  Harman’s studio was located on the property in a small building near the main house.

In 1964, Harman retired from the strip and devoted more time to painting.  But that wasn’t the end of the Red Ryder strip.  It was continued by his former assistant, Bob MacLeod, and others.

Harman died in 1982.
The Red Ryder Round-up is held every year as a July the Fourth event in Pagosa Springs, which is also the home of the Fred Harman Art Museum.

 
       

 






 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Friday, October 10, 2014

THE BORDERLAND: A Novel of Texas -- Edwin Shrake


The Borderland is an old-fashioned, thoroughly researched, skillfully written, not to mention entertaining, historical novel set in Texas in 1839. The author, the late Edwin “Bud” Shrake, a native of Texas and one of its bigger-than-life, legendary writers, knew the history and geography of his state and through exhaustive research, he also became acquainted with the people of that bygone era. As a result, he was able to intermingle fact and fiction and to intertwine historical and fictional characters without the story becoming stilted, as is often the case with historical novels.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

THE BRANCH AND THE SCAFFOLD: A Novel of Judge Parker -- Loren D. Estleman




I stumbled onto Loren D. Estleman years ago when I checked out "This Old Bill" from my local library. I had never heard of the author but since the book was a fictional treatment of Buffalo Bill, I couldn't resist it. I followed up that one by quickly reading two more of his historical westerns: "Aces & Eights" (Wild Bill Hickok) and "Bloody Season" (the Earps). By then Estleman had become one of my favorite authors of western fiction.




He is not only a prolific writer, but also a somewhat unusual one, in that he specializes in two genres: westerns (especially historical westerns about real people) and crime novels. Since the appearance of his first novel in 1976, he has now written 40 crime novels, 24 westerns, two works of non-fiction, and three short story collections (one western and two crime). If you are keeping score that is 69 books in 34 years!

In "The Branch and the Scaffold" Estleman covers the same ground as the late Douglas C. Jones, who also specialized in historical westerns (and a favorite writer). It is the story of Judge Isaac Parker, the so-called "hanging judge," who battled to bring law and order to the Western Arkansas District and the Indian Nations (later Oklahoma Territory). It is an episodic novel that does not include a single fictional character. The characters, even the minor ones, were real people. That was not the case in his other historical westerns. In those stories, he created fictional characters in order to enliven the historical events.


Judge Isaac Parker
"The Branch and the Scaffold" is not my favorite Estleman novel. That may be because I have read much about the people and the events that are covered and since Estleman does nothing to embellish the story -- it reads almost like a work of history rather than a work of fiction -- and I am already familiar with that history.

But to those who do not know much about the life and times of Judge Parker and the lawmen who rode for him or the famous and infamous outlaws they brought to justice, the novel will be both entertaining and informative.

 




Loren D. Estleman









Monday, September 29, 2014

MONEYBALL: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game -- Michael Lewis


In honor of the MLB postseason, I am resurrecting a book review that I wrote back in 2009.


I hardly know where to begin in attempting a review of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.  It isn’t that I don’t think that the book is well written, because it is. It isn’t that I disagree with the conclusions that are reached in the book, because, for the most part, I don’t. What bothers me, as a recovering baseball fanatic, is that I don’t enjoy the game that utilizes the approaches that are proposed in this book.

Moneyball  describes how the general manager of the Oakland A’s, Billy Beane, has been able to use sabermetrics (statistical analysis originated by Bill James and others) to more intelligently draft players and win games.

 
According to the proponents of this new approach:
 
1) offense is more important than pitching; 2) defense hardly matters at all; 3) the most important baseball statistic is on-base percentage, followed by slugging percentage; 4) stealing bases should not be attempted because it is not worth the risk; 5) the same goes for the hit-and-run; 6) never sacrifice because it is not worth giving up the out ; 7) scouts are unnecessary; and 8) line-ups and game strategy are dictated to the manager by the general manager and his statistical analysts, making managers almost as unnecessary as scouts.

Beane and his statistical guru, and not the scouts, decide who should be drafted.  According to Lewis, the most important statistic to Beane and his statistician in determining what position players to draft is the ability of the player to draw walks. They look for players (only college players for they never draft high school players) who have exhibited the ability to work deep in the count and to draw walks.

 
I can’t speak for others, but I don’t watch baseball games in order to watch hitters work deep into the count, draw a walk, camp out on the bases until somebody gets an extra-base hit (or two) to drive them home. The strategy utilized by Beane and his proponents may produce a more efficient style of baseball, about that I am in no position to quibble. It may be the only way that a team like the Oakland A’s can compete with the deep pockets of the New York Yankees (the ‘unfair game’ mentioned in the book’s subtitle).

However, to repeat, I find
the emphasis on this approach to result in a game that is much less fun to watch. 




Michael Lewis




 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

I'M TALKIN' BASEBALL

Tis the season!  No, not those seasons.  I’m talking about the MLB postseason. 


I’m not the fanatical fan (fan being derived from fanatic) I once was. Free agency (an overdue and absolute necessity) means that players jump from one team to another resulting in less team continuity which in turns makes it virtually impossible to root for players for the entirety of their careers (I’m looking at you Albert Pujols). To further shore up my credentials as a fan of dinosaur vintage, I will add that I don’t like the DH, interleague play or, especially, the newly instituted instant replay appeal rule, which sometimes brings an already slow game to a complete standstill.



Stanley Frank Musial: Classic stance and classy guy
I say all this in order to say that I still have a nostalgic delight in the team (Cardinals, of course) and the games they played in the past.  My first hero was Stan Musial.  Because in my youth we lived too far away to attend games and the team was never featured on TV’s Game of the Week, my picture of Stan the Man was one created by voices on the radio.  And what voices they were.  It is hard to imagine, but there was a time when Harry Caray, Joe Garagiola, and Jack Buck were in the same broadcast booth.  I don’t know how it held them.

In later years, I moved closer to St. Louis and was able to attend games on a regular basis.  But by that time, however, Stan had been retired for a decade and I was too old for sports heroes.  But I sure did admire a couple of Redbirds by the name of Gibson and Brock and later a wizard at shortstop named Ozzie.


Gibby

Lou


Ozzie

Today I am a more passive, more detached follower of the exploits of the Cardinals.  At the moment, they have a slender lead in their division as they attempt to return to the World Series to avenge the loss to the Red Sox a year ago.  But if it happens, it won’t be against the Red Sox, a team that fell from first to last in its division and has engaged in a fire sale this season ridding itself of players and slicing its payroll. 

I own over a hundred baseball books and who knows how many I have actually read.  I certainly don’t.

If you are interested, and of course you are, here is a list of my favorite baseball books.  On the list are ten nonfiction books and one novel (baseball fiction for the most part has not been great).  They are listed in no special order, except for the first, which is number one on my list.




Gibby v. Mickey, October 1964

October 1964David Halberstam


This account of a year featuring a young team (Cardinals) on its way up and an old team (Yankees) on its way down is a jewel written by an outstanding journalist.  Like all good baseball books, it is about much more than just baseball.




Ball FourJim Bouton

This groundbreaking tell all book shocked many people and made many people angry (especially the Yankees).  I loved it! Bouton wrote an enjoyable follow-up titled “I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally.”  Bouton, by the way, was one of the stars of the ’64 Yankees team that was defeated by the Cardinals.





The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood -- Jane Leavy

This book proves one of two things: as outrageous as Bouton’s book was thought to be at the time, he 1) didn’t tell everything he knew or 2) he didn’t know everything.  And Leavy’s book proves it. Mantle’s story is a sad, sad story of what-could-have-been and what-should-have-been.

 
 

Southern League: A True Story of Baseball, Civil Rights, and the Deep South's Most Compelling Pennant Race Larry Colton

This book by a former pro player is as inspirational as Leavy’s book is sad.  It is too bad that it is not better known, for it should be read, by not only baseball fans, but also everyone.  You can read a review here. 

 

 The 33-Year-Old Rookie – Chris Coste

Coste’s story of how after many, many years of toil in the minor leagues, he finally managed to make it to the big leagues at an age when many players have already retired or are seriously contemplating it.  He stayed there four years.


 

Hank Aaron and the Home Run that Changed America Tom Stanton
The long title pretty well tells the story of a great player, but more than that, a great man.  As far as I am concerned, he is still the career leader in home runs.


 


The Curse of Rocky Colavito: A Loving Look at a Thirty-Year Slump  Terry Pluto
A humorous, but often sad, especially for Cleveland fans, account of the strange, sometimes tragic, bordering on unbelievable bad luck of the Indians and their fans in the wake of Colavito’s trade to the Tigers.


 


A Day in the Bleachers – Arnold Hano
A play-by-play account of a World Series game at the Polo Grounds in which a young outfielder by the name of Willie Mays made one of the most spectacular catches in baseball history and broke the hearts of the Cleveland Indians and their fans, written by someone who was there. And this was before the Colavito trade.  Maybe this is where the jinx began.

 
 
The Boys of Summer  Roger Kahn
The classic account of the Brooklyn Dodgers of the ’50’s, written by a man that many have anointed as the best baseball writer ever.





1941 – The Greatest Year in Sports Mike Vaccaro
It was not a great year in all ways, of course. In fact, in many ways it was a tragic year.  But the title is correct and baseball was front and center.  It was the year that Joe DiMaggio hit safely in a record 56 consecutive games and Ted Williams hit .406.  Nobody since has come close to DiMaggio’s record and Williams is still the last hitter to top .400.
 
Bang the Drum Slowly Mark Harris

Mark Harris wrote a number of baseball novels all of which were narrated by a pitcher named Henry Wiggen who threw and thought left-handed.  They are all worth reading, but this is the best one.  As far as I am concerned, it is the classic baseball novel.







The Whiz Kids had won it,
Bobby Thomson had done it,
And Yogi read the comics all the while.
Rock 'n' roll was bein' born,
Marijuana we would scorn,
So down on the corner the National Pastime went on trial.


We're talkin' baseball (Kluzewski, Campanella),
Talkin' baseball (The Man and Bobby Feller),
The Scooter, The Barber and The Newk,
They knew 'em all from Boston to Dubuque,
Especially Willie, Mickey and The Duke.


Well Casey was winnin',
Hank Aaron was beginnin',
One Robby goin' out, one comin' in.
Kiner an' midget Gaedel,
The Thumper an' Mel Parnell,
An' Ike was the only one winnin' down in Washington.


We're talkin' baseball (Kluzewski, Campanella),
Talkin' baseball (The Man and Bobby Feller),
The Scooter, The Barber and The Newk,
They knew 'em all from Boston to Dubuque,
Especially Willie, Mickey and The Duke.


Now my old friend The Bachelor,
Well he swore he was The Oklahoma Kid,
An' Cookie played hookey to go an' see The Duke,
An' me I always love Willie Mays,
Those were the days.


Well now it's the eighties,
An' Brett is the greatest,
An' Bobby Bonds can play for everyone.
Rose is at the Vet,
Rusty again is a Met,
An' the great Alexander is pitchin' again in Washington.


I'm talkin' baseball (like Reggie, Quisenberry),
Talkin' baseball (Carew an' Gaylord Perry),
Seaver, Garvey, Schmidt an' Vida Blue,
If Cooperstown is callin' it's no fluke,
They'll be with Willie, Mickey an' The Duke.


Willie, Mickey an' The Duke,..
(Say Hey! Say Hey! Say Hey!)
It was Willie, Mickey an' The Duke,..
(Say Hey! Say Hey! Say Hey!)
I'm talkin' Willie, Mickey an' The Duke,..
(Say Hey! Say Hey! Say Hey!)


-- Terry Cashman

 
 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

STRANGE PEACHES by Edwin Shrake


When anybody asks me what Dallas was like during the time of the Kennedy assassination, I always refer them to one book: Edwin 'Bud' Shrakes's Strange Peaches." -- Don Graham, Texas Monthly


 
If the above is true then Dallas was a very wild, weird, wicked place populated by some very wild, weird, wicked individuals. I wouldn't know, but Graham should, so I will have to take his word for it.

Published in 1972, Strange Peaches was not a commercial success. Because of its unflattering portrayal of Dallas at the time of the Kennedy assassination, it received practically no local coverage or any elsewhere in the state. The publisher didn't like it and gave it scant promotion. In fact, the book's editor didn't like it either. However, the critics did.

Here is what some of them wrote:

"Strange Peaches is not only one of the best-written American novels since World War II, it entertains...a great book, not just for critics but for readers." -- United Press International

"A fine, bitter sometimes savage but always controlled novel." -- Kansas City Star


"A big novel, two parts anger to one part humor...fast and surefire. And Edwin Shrake's narrative has been amply dosed with Dexedrine. There's not an ounce of fat on it." -- New York Times Book Review

I really like the novel and its take on the city and the conditions surrounding the death of a president, but I also must admit that I grew weary of too many descriptions of pill popping, pot smoking, boozing wild parties. Come to think of it, there didn't have to be a party for those activities to take place. They seemed to be a daily occurrence. Okay, maybe that was the way it was, but I still got tired reading about it. But it would certainly explain a lot of wild, weird, wickedness.






Monday, September 8, 2014

FEAR ON TRIAL by John Henry Faulk





Fear on Trial (published in 1964) is John Henry Faulk's story of his lonely and courageous fight against the practice of blacklisting that transformed him from a popular radio personality into an unemployable pariah.  After a battle that lasted six years, he won -- sort of.

The book begins:

"This is a story of violence.  Not violence involving physical brutality, lust, or bloodshed, but a more subtle kind of violence -- the violence of vigilantism.  In a society that has achieved rule by law, rule by vigilantism is a violence not only against those immediately affected but society itself.  Like all stories of violence, this one took place against a background of intrigue and fear." 

John Henry Faulk, born and raised in Austin, Texas, was an unlikely, but popular radio personality in New York City.  He was on the air for an hour each afternoon, five days a week, on CBS's flagship station, WCBS.  He also made occasional appearances on network TV game shows.



"I spun yarns, reminisced about my childhood in Texas and commented on the news of the day and the foibles of the world."

He had a master's degree in folklore from the University of Texas. Not nearly as well known, of course, he was nevertheless a storyteller in the tradition of Mark Twain and Will Rogers. In between his stories, he played recorded music, usually of the country-western variety. He was a hit.

As a radio and TV performer, he was required to be a member of the American Federation of Telelvision and Radio Artists (AFTRA) union. Although Faulk had joined the union in 1946 when he first arrived in New York, he did not become an active member until 1955. He did so because of an organization called AWARE, Inc.

Established in the early fifties, AWARE's founders and members considered themselves to be combatants in the battle against the Red Menace that they perceived to be stalking the world of "entertainment-communications." In truth it was a vigilante committee that published bulletins that accused radio and TV performers of engaging in, at worst, Communist activities or, at best, pro-Communist activities. Its allegations nearly always consisted of innuendoes based on the flimsiest evidence and/or guilt by association.

 
 
AWARE's accusations nearly always resulted in the targeted individual being placed on a blacklist and therefore becoming unemployable. At other times, charges concerning certain performers, as well as writers and other people working behind the scenes, were transmitted secretly to sponsors, advertising agencies, or TV and radio stations and networks, and the individual was never told why he/she had been blacklisted.

This was an even worse case scenario for these people, because they were unable to defend themselves since they didn't know why they had been blacklisted. Unfortunately, most sponsors, ad excutives, and station and network executives were reluctant, out of fear, to reveal the source or the nature of the allegations.

 
Aware's leadership knew that one way it could force its views on the radio and television industry was to gain influence in AFTRA -- especially the union's local in New York.  By the fifties, the organization almost completely dominated that local.
 
The local's board of directors was controlled by a faction that was elected year after year, a faction whose main issue was anti-Communism.  Some of the directors were also officers in AWARE, including the president of the union in 1955.
 
That year, a group of candidates calling themselves the Middle-of-the-Road slate ran for the board in opposition to the anti-Communist faction that approved blacklisting and had the support of AWARE.  The insurgents were successful in winning twenty-seven of thirty-five seats.  The Middle Roaders were then successful in electing members of their group to the top three leadership positions in the local.  CBS news correspondent Charles Collingwood became the new president; actor and comedian Orson Bean was elected first vice-president; and the new second vice-president was John Henry Faulk.
 
"While we were opposed to Communism we were also opposed to the blacklisting and intended to do something to put a stop to it."
 
"I understood full well that a strong aggressive position in the face of AWARE's attacks was our only way out, that a defensive attitude would be fatal to any effectiveness we might have in union affairs.  AWARE, like [Senator] McCarthy, could only operate on the offensive.  That's why they followed one policy alone -- attack."
 
It is no surprise that the Middle-of-the-Road slate was attacked in Congress by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which had its own witch-hunt in operation, that included its investigations into a perceived Communist influence in the movie industry.
 
The new union board members had barely taken office when AWARE attacked the slate in its annual report.  The report was especially critical of the top three officers.  It criticized the well-known Collingwood for publicly speaking out against blacklisting, but backed off from accusing him of any activities that could have been construed to be unpatriotic in nature.
 
The report reserved most of its ammunition for the two lesser-known officers, Bean and Faulk.  But it was Faulk, the most outspoken of the three, who was caught in the crosshairs.
 
 
Charles Collingwood
Orson Bean
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 


Apparently, Collingwood, perhaps based on  his work as a war correspondent and his high profile, was beyond reproach.  There doesn't seem to have been any pressure placed on CBS to fire him.  With the other two, however, the situation was entirely different.
 
"....Orson Bean called to say that he had just been told by his agent that the AWARE bulletin had gotten him into trouble with Ed Sullivan.  Bean had made many appearances on the Sullivan show and had other appearances scheduled, but Sullivan had told Bean's agent that he could not use Bean again till he, Bean, had done something about the AWARE allegations....It seemed to be a clear case of an artist being blacklisted and being told why.  However, Bean's agent did not think that a lawsuit was a wise course.  Sometime later, Orson Bean withdrew from the Middle-of-the-Road slate.  Being a man of integrity, he gave his reasons for doing so.  His professional advisers had made it clear that remaining on the slate would seriously harm his career."

Faulk, on the other hand, did not back off.  After pressure from his sponsors and their advertising agencies, WCBS caved and fired him.  He decided to do what no other entertainer had done before him; he would file a libel suit against AWARE and two founding members of the organization who were deeply involved in the witch-hunt. 

With the financial assistance of friends, especially Edward R. Murrow, he was able to retain Louis Nizer, the most famous trial lawyer of the day.  Nizer, to his credit, charged only a minimum retainer fee.

 
Justice may be blind, but she may need a good lawyer to keep the blindfold in place.

Nizer warned Faulk that the action, due to inevitable delays by the defendants, would be a long one, but that he would win in the end.

"....[Nizer] said  that I should know it might take several years to bring the case to trial.  During that time, great pressure would be brought to bear on me -- not only economic pressure, but subtle emotional pressures.  It was quite possible that my family would suffer.  He then detailed a rather black picture of legal procedures.  It all added up to a grim warning."

Filed in 1956, the case did not go to trial until 1962.  In those six years, Faulk was unable to find a job in his chosen profession.  He and his family moved to Austin where he unsuccessfully attempted to sell mutual funds; he and his wife also struggled to run a small advertising firm.  Meanwhile, the family's mountain of debts grew ever higher.

The trial, beginning in the spring of that year and lasting eleven weeks, received a great amount of news coverage.  The jury awarded Faulk $3.5 million, which was more than he had asked for in his suit.  At the time, it was the largest monetary award in the history of libel suits.

An appeals court, while upholding the verdict, lowered the award to $500,000.  However, by 1962 AWARE was virtually broke and Faulk netted only about $75,000, and that went to legal fees and to pay debts that had accrued during his years of virtual unemployment.  His marriage could not withstand the strain of the ordeal and ended in divorce and his career as an entertainer never recovered. But he won -- sort of.

In October 1975, a dramatization of this book aired on network TV.  Ironically, the network was CBS.  The TV movie starred William Devane as Faulk and George C. Scott as Louis Nizer.  Faulk served as a consultant on the movie.  The production won widespread critical acclaim and received an Emmy nomination.

In his later years, John Henry Faulk lectured at colleges and universities.  The subject?  The U.S. Constitution, with special emphasis on the First Amendment.


John Henry Faulk (1913-1990)