Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Saying Goodbye to Slingin' Sammy Baugh

The death of Washington Redskin legend and NFL Hall-of-Fame quarterback Sammy Baugh earlier this month represents an end to a chapter in the early history of the NFL. Sammy Baugh played sixteen seasons with the Washington Redskins from 1937 to 1952. In the first nine seasons of his career, he led the Redskins to two NFL championships and five Eastern Conference titles. When he retired in 1952 he was the greatest passer in NFL history. In between Baugh redefined the role of the quarterback and made the forward pass a vital, essential part of the game itself.

Before Baugh came along the forward pass was a desperation measure to be solely when the offense faced a third and long situation and even then when the ball was thrown it wasn’t thrown with any particular grace or style. Baugh changed that. He brought beauty, power, grace, and style to the quarterback position and made the pass a viable option on first and second downs.

Before Baugh, NFL offenses used the single wing or double wing formations which were earlier forms of today’s shotgun formations that heavily emphasized running. When Baugh joined the NFL he changed that. Standing in the tailback position (in the single wing and double wing the quarterback was a mere blocking back) Baugh would take snap and look to pass to his ends or wing backs. Invariably Baugh would find the open man and sling a bullet to the receiver, usually for huge yardage. (In the 1937 NFL championship game against the Chicago Bears, Baugh connected for TD passes for fifty-five and seventy-seven yards). Whereas NFL teams used only three defensive backs now they had to use four or more defensive backs against Baugh thus revolutionizing NFL defenses just as Baugh was revamping NFL offenses.

Baugh was an incredibly accurate thrower. In 1945 he completed 70.3% of his passes; a record never to be broken. (Baugh threw 182 passes and completed 128 of them—modest by today’s standards but today’s NFL quarterbacks throw 180 passes by week four of the regular season).

Not only was Baugh accurate he was also supremely confident in himself. During Baugh’s rookie season Redskins coach Ray Flaherty was outlining a pass pattern on a chalkboard and he told Baugh, “When the receiver reaches here, you hit him in the eye with the ball.” Baugh shot back deadpan, “which eye?”

(Baugh wasn’t joking about hitting a player in the eye. Late in his career when he was a living legend, Baugh was given a cheap-shot hit by an opposing rookie defensive lineman. Baugh admonished the rookie to take it easy whereupon the impertinent rookie gave Baugh another cheap-shot on the very next play. Baugh told his linemen to let the rookie through on the next play—which they did—whereupon Baugh threw a line-drive pass that hit the rookie right between the eyes and knocked him out—remember football fans they didn’t wear face masks in those days).

And yet Baugh was more than a passer. In those days when players played both offense and defense, Baugh was a decent defensive back who once intercepted four passes in one game. Baugh was also one of the greatest punters in the NFL, averaging forty-five yards a punt—which is still exceptional in today’s game. Indeed Baugh was a master of the quick kick—a play never seen in today’s game. Many a time Baugh would fade back to pass only to fool the opposing defense by quick-kicking the ball thus trapping the opposing team deep in their own territory. In the 1942 NFL championship game against the Chicago Bears, Baugh launched an eighty-five yard quick kick that caught the Bears flat-footed. The Redskins would win that game 14-6.

Sammy Baugh’s impact on the game went beyond the football field. Baugh’s presence on the Washington Redskins made the nation’s capitol into the pro football capitol of America. In 1937 Redskins owner George Preston Marshall moved the team from Boston to Washington and desperately needed a big star who could draw big crowds to watch his team. Sammy Baugh was that star and when he won the NFL championship in his rookie season (only one of two NFL quarterbacks ever to do that if I’m not mistaken—the other was Bob Waterfield in 1945 with the Cleveland Rams) Baugh made the Washington Redskins a viable NFL franchise which it remains today. Baugh also was the first in a long line of great Redskin quarterbacks who would lead the ‘Skins to victory: Eddie LeBaron, Sonny Jurgensen, Billy Kilmer, Joe Theismann, Doug Williams, and Mark Rypien. It was Baugh who laid the foundations of the iron covenant that exists today between the Redskins and their loyal fans.

Sammy Baugh should be revered by football fans because he was a vital link in the evolutionary chain of the quarterback position in the football. Before Sammy Baugh came along the greatest football quarterback was Bennie Friedman. Baugh took the antecedents that Friedman established in the realm of forward passing and elevated them to an unprecedented level. When Baugh retired in 1952 his standards would be taken up (and surpassed) by NFL legends Otto Graham, John Unitas, Joe Namath, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, and Peyton Manning. Simply put, the achievements his successors made would not have been possible without Sammy Baugh paving the way.

All NFL quarterbacks today owe Sammy Baugh a debt of thanks.

As do NFL fans as well.

Thanks for the memories Sammy Baugh. Rest in Peace.

Happy New Year.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Because of the War, There Went The Shoe

I must admit that I had a very good laugh last Sunday when the all news shows aired the footage of Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zeidi hurling his shoes as well as verbal abuse at President Bush. In terms of iconic political moments it ranks up there with the photograph of an egg impacting on the face Wendell Wilkie the G.O.P. nominee in the 1940 Presidential Election.

What al-Zeidi did stands as a very courageous act in that he did what the American press never had the courage to do since 2003: stand up and expose the base bloody hypocrisy of the Second Persian Gulf War and strike back at the perpetrator of that base bloody hypocrisy.

When President Bush stood there and tried to give his self-serving speech about the Second Persian Gulf War (essentially doing what Pontius Pilate, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon tried to do in the past: justify the unjustifiable) Al-Zeidi let the President—and the rest of the world—know that he (along with millions other people throughout the world) weren’t having any of it. For all of President Bush’s cant of “victory”, “democracy” and “freedom of speech” no other President did more to stifle dissent and civil liberties in his own country. When one also considers the thought that over four thousand Americans will not be allowed to celebrate Christmas with their loved ones because of the fact that they were killed in action in Iraq and the fact that thousands more Iraqis (innocent and insurgent) were killed also, it makes any decent individual want to throw their shoes in protest as well. What al-Zeidi did ranks up there with the image of the Chinese freedom standing in front of the tank when the Chinese Army crushed the 1989 Tian-a-men Square uprising.

From the aesthetic viewpoint I do have one criticism for al-Zeidi: he should not have yelled at President Bush before throwing his shoes at him. All he did was to give Bush a chance to duck. Instead he should have thrown his shoes first and then do his yelling. He would have had better odds of hitting his target.

Anyway, considering how depressing a year this has been, I have to give thanks Muntadhar Al-Zeidi for giving the world a reason to laugh and cheer this year.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Jim Morrison: 65

Today marks the 65th birthday of the late Jim Morrison of the Doors. Somehow the notion of Morrison living to retirement age (and becoming eligible for Social Security and Medicare) seems alien considering the deliberate path of excess he chose for himself which culminated with his passing in a Parisian bathtub in 1971.

Why do I mark the birthday of a man who had a relatively brief musical career? (Four years).

It’s my way of saying ‘thank you’ to him.

It seems almost clich├ęd to say it but I became a Doors fans after I saw the opening sequence of the movie Apocalypse Now where director Francis Ford Coppola used the Doors song The End as musical background to a napalm attack. To paraphrase actor Martin Sheen, listening to Morrison sing those tortured lyrics really put the hook in me. Then came the book that did more to mythologize Morrison, No One Here Gets Out Alive.

I was too young to see the Doors in concert. I was a month shy of my eighth birthday when Morrison died (although it seems mysteriously intriguing that my personal life began unraveling right after his death). It was during the tail end of that emotional unraveling that I discovered the Doors and, through the Doors, an appreciation of Morrison’s life and artistic self.

To some it may seem fatuous but Jim Morrison saved my life.

How is that possible? How could someone who drank, drugged, had indiscriminate sex (pre-AIDS), and devoted himself to disarranging his senses save my life?

It was because Jim Morrison gave me the courage to write.

The blog you’re reading now is because of Jim Morrison. The song lyrics, prose, poetry, and social commentary I’ve been doing since the age of seventeen are because of Jim Morrison (well not solely because of him. John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Byron, Keats, Shelley, and T.S. Eliot and various other writers had something to do with it as well) but Morrison ranks up there as a personal inspiration to put pen to paper; to make my fingers hit the keyboard; to put my work before the public and let it stand naked in the spotlight for better or for worse.

Before I discovered the Doors I was lost in a Roman wilderness of pain, having no sense of sanity or self.

Morrison gave me the courage to find my voice. To paraphrase one of his poems, he spoke to my heart and gave me the great gift of words, power, and trance.

His body of work allowed me to see my pain (and the causes of it) for what it was. He cleansed my doors of perception, allowing me to escape; to go on journeys through a primitive darkness before returning and telling others what I saw during the journey.

He gave me the courage to travel and discover new worlds and draw inspiration from those worlds.

If I didn’t have my writings then I wouldn’t be alive today. I would have died or gone insane or did both a long time ago.

My writing gave me a reason to live; a reason for hope (albeit a forlorn one). But like Morrison sang in Orange County Suite, “I’m still here and you’re still there and….”

Since that time I have always been on the lookout for Morrisoniana: I have most of the videos, books, and records. Even more interesting is that despite Morrison’s brief career and the lack of respectable critical acclaim that the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan received, Morrison endures as a cultural icon. His shade pops up in the most interesting places. Movies like Eddie and the Cruisers, Death Becomes Her, Wayne’s World Part Two have made allusions to him or had actors portraying him. (I think the Death Becomes Her portrayal was the best one). I even remember a short-lived TV series involving UFO investigators had an episode where a pre-famous Jim Morrison was featured as a doomed character. Miami Vice had an episode where the entire show featured the music of the Doors. And of course there is Oliver Stone’s revisionist and puerile cinematic bio The Doors. (I remember being disappointed with the film. I felt that Stone missed the point of Morrison’s life although there are a couple of scenes when the movie really capture’s Jim’s life. One is a shot of actor Val Kilmer (who portrayed Morrison) staggering silently, drunkenly through the streets of Los Angeles after a montage of scenes capturing Morrison’s dissipation; the other is the one where Kilmer as Morrison harangues his friends on the L.A. streets about whether they were really alive or not. Sadly the rest of the film failed in its mission. Like biographer Stephen Davis writes in his bio of Morrison, “He’s still causing trouble.”

I have spent nearly three decades trying to find his footprints. The first day I arrived in Paris, the first thing I did after checking into my hotel was go to Pere la Chaise cemetery and commune with his spirit. It was the 15th anniversary of his death and I, along with young kids from around world, kept vigil, passing a wine bottle around, and sharing our love for Jim. (The experience inspired me to write a song called The Graveyard Shift to pay homage to those who visit his grave). When I was in L.A. precisely seventeen years ago to film my Jeopardy! episode, I spent the day after the filming wandering the streets of Venice Beach where Morrison lived in starvation and poverty, gobbling LSD, and writing many of his great hits. When I returned to Paris in 2005, what did I do? I spent an entire afternoon walking the streets surrounding his apartment in the Rue Beautrellis in the Marais district of Paris, drinking at his favorite brasserie, and resting at the Place des Vosge. The last thing I did before going home was to visit his grave again and act as an amateur docent telling the young visitors about the time when the grave had graffiti and didn’t have security guards like it does now.

For me, my favorite Doors songs are as follows:

1) The End
2) Crystal Ship
3) End of the Night
4) Soul Kitchen (The Absolutely Live! Version)
5) Strange Days
6) Moonlight Drive
7) Unknown Soldier (the live version at the 1968 Hollywood Bowl concert. If Morrison were still alive today and performing methinks he would be dusting off this chestnut and performing it with great effect with the Iraqi war going on).
8) Celebration of the Lizard (to this day I can still recite all 133 lines of his epic poem. My favorite recitation came in 1989 when I was staggering drunk on Italian white wine through the streets of Glasgow, Scotland. Amazingly the streets were relatively deserted so I amused myself by reciting the poem at the top of my lungs. Even more amazing is that I didn’t blow a single line!)
9) Peace Frog
10) Queen of the Highway
11) Indian Summer
12) The Wasp (Texas Radio and the Big Beat). I like both versions, the L.A. Woman album version and the 1968 live version which he performed on Dutch TV featured on the live album Alive She Cried.
13) Someday Soon (from the Doors box set)
14) Orange County Suite

Among his poems (there are some who dismiss his poetry as pretentious and others who feel that his best poetry was in his song lyrics) I’ve always loved Lament and An American Prayer and his Graveyard poem.

Jim Morrison was my road not taken but he also guided me to the road I’m taking now. I have no regrets on that score. He kept me alive and he kept me rocking.

Thanks, Jim. Happy birthday and Rest in Peace, Mr. Mojo Risin.