Those who ask me about the potential value of extracurricular activities for college students risk being on the receiving end of a verbal serenade about The Torch. Allow me to explain….
My undergraduate alma mater, Valparaiso University in Indiana, recently announced the creation of an online archive of past issues of The Torch, the school’s long-running weekly student newspaper. As a former Torch department editor and reporter (1979-81), the notice catapulted me into a nostalgic state. I even dug out the bound volume from my first year on the paper, photos of which you may peruse here.
I quickly lapse into soggy memories over The Torch because it was the most important extracurricular activity of my college career. The experience of writing and editing articles for publication has paid professional dividends throughout my career, and many of the friendships formed with fellow staffers have endured to this day.
I joined The Torch in my junior year, and I pored myself into working for it. I wrote dozens of articles and columns, mostly on academic affairs topics within the university. I also assigned stories to reporters in my department and edited their work.
It was a heady experience to write pieces for publication with a byline appended. Many members of the VU community read the paper, as our lively letters-to-the-editor section often reflected. (I learned that if you’re going to put your words out there for public consumption, you’d better have or grow a thick skin.)
Some articles demanded special attention to detail, thoroughness, and accuracy. For example, I wrote an investigative piece in which I was able to elicit admissions from campus administrators that a popular political science professor had been denied tenure on grounds beyond the official criteria for tenure evaluation. This meant many hours interviewing university faculty members and deans; our reporting had to be airtight on such an important matter.
I also did a series of articles covering the aftermath of a tragic student-on-student slaying that had racial overtones. Those pieces thrust me well beyond the comfort zone of reporting everyday campus events and activities. For several weeks I was regularly on the phone with sources from police departments, the county prosecutor’s office, and the local hospital, among others.
The Torch quickly became the social and intellectual hub that I didn’t previously have at Valparaiso. A former Torch colleague once wrote that it became our own college of sorts, where we wrote and edited our articles and debated issues related to academic and campus life. We spent a lot of time simply hanging out at The Torch offices, even when we didn’t have to be there. Looking back, I now realize that it was an exceptional extracurricular experience.
Our little newspaper was not free of sophomoric writings (some penned by yours truly), and at times we took ourselves too earnestly (ditto). But we produced some quality reporting and thoughtful commentary about collegiate life and academic institutions, as evidenced by multiple awards we earned from the Indiana Collegiate Press Association during those years.
The university’s Greek system was a regular focus for us, and we often took to task the behavioral excesses emerging from fraternity events. This was the age of Animal House, and along with toga parties inspired by the movie came some pretty egregious conduct. In retrospect, it’s clear that we were fully warranted in addressing these issues, many of which anticipated today’s concerns about student conduct at fraternity events.
However, we largely dismissed the positive social bonds facilitated by fraternities and sororities. Our office conversations were laced with regular putdowns of Greek organizations, to the dismay of Torch staffers who belonged to them. At a school with a largely conservative student body that embraced the Greek system, our newspaper was a liberal-ish, independent enclave, sometimes fueled by healthy doses of self-righteousness.
As a group of (mostly) liberal arts majors, we closely reported campus deliberations relating to the place of the social sciences, humanities, and general education in the university curriculum. These topics were frequently invoked in editorials and opinion columns as well. The more callow among us were guided by the work of three senior editors with strong intellectual orientations. Many of us were unaware that we were participating in an emerging national debate on the value of instruction in the liberal arts, but this troika was already marking academic trends by reading The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Only a handful of Torch staffers would build careers in journalism. One of them, Jim Hale (author of the “Insights gleaned” column pictured above), is currently a reporter for the Gettysburg Times in Pennsylvania. Previously Jim was a writer for the Gettysburg College communications office and a reporter for the Chesterton Tribune in Indiana.
As for me, I did some part-time reporting for a couple of local newspapers in northwest Indiana, and later I served as an editor of the law school newspaper at New York University. Though I did not pursue a journalism career, The Torch served as an ongoing tutorial on the importance of tight, clear, well organized writing. In terms of aspirations, at least, these qualities have manifested themselves in virtually everything I write: Scholarly articles, essays, reports, op-ed pieces, and, yes, blog posts.
In fact, I know that my affinity for the blogging medium traces back to my days at The Torch. Writing this blog is an engaging pastime for me, like being a newspaper columnist, albeit with a much smaller readership! Writing my professional blog, Minding the Workplace, requires more analytical smarts, but it, too, has roots in my collegiate newspaper experience.
The old chestnut about understanding your present by comprehending your past certainly applies here. I did not have an academic career in mind when I was a collegian. My intention was to go to law school and eventually to start a career in politics. (I also was active in student government and in political campaigns as a college student.) However, as I flipped through the pages of The Torch, I understood how reporting on the ups and downs of academe planted seeds that keep sprouting in my life today.
Equally important, I remain good friends with everyone whose byline appears in these photographs, as well as others who were part of the mix. Our paths cross regularly through periodic get-togethers, e-mails, phone calls, and social media. Many of these friendships have matured and deepened over the years. This only reinforces my belief that something good was happening at that campus newspaper office some 35 years ago.
Portions of this post were adapted from a previous piece on the importance of extracurricular activities, written for Minding the Workplace.
Not too long ago, a popular Sunday tradition was spending a good chunk of the day reading through the Sunday editions of the daily newspapers. Millions experienced the tactile delight of opening up a big Sunday paper, wondering what interesting stuff waited to be discovered. Even the advertising flyers were fun to page through, especially around holiday season.
The hefty Sunday newspaper has been a journalistic tradition for well over a century. One of my favorite coffee table books is Nicholson Baker & Margaret Brentano, The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer’s Newspaper (1898-1911) (2005), which celebrates Sunday newspapers published during the turn of the last century.
The World on Sunday and the tradition of Sunday newspaper reading represent an aspect of pre-digital culture that may be hard to understand for those weaned on an online world where wishes for news and commentary are instantly gratified. Fortunately, some of the major newspapers still land on doorsteps with a healthy thud on Sundays, containing some of their best in-depth reporting, feature articles, and opinion pieces.
Growing up in Chicagoland
My Sunday newspaper habit goes back to growing up in Northwest Indiana, where local papers and the Chicago dailies were readily available. Among the Sunday editions that regularly got my attention were the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Hammond Times, and Gary Post-Tribune. The Tribune excelled at covering my beloved Chicago sports teams, and the Post-Tribune did a very good job with local news.
These papers deserve credit for turning me into a Sunday paper junkie. The Chicago influence was especially strong. The Windy City was a great, great newspaper town back in the day, fueled by the city’s colorful politicians, sports figures, and crime bosses. Beyond the headliners, however, the reporters and columnists who toiled for Chicago’s daily papers also had a knack for digging out the stories of everyday people. The human interest story had a regular place in the city’s newspapers.
Sundays in New York
When I lived in New York City (1982-1994), the Sunday papers were a special treat. The Sunday New York Times was an especially heavy load, a multi-pound door stopper packed with goodies and advertising circulars. The early edition of the Sunday Times would come out on late Saturday evening (and still does), and many a weekend night out included picking up a copy on the way home.
My personal favorite, however, was New York Newsday, the now gone NYC edition of the venerable Long Island daily. New York Newsday wasn’t as worldly as the Times, but it spoke more closely to the city’s middle class and did a superb job of covering local politics and sports. Its thick Sunday edition was chock full of extended features and commentaries. To this day, New York Newsday remains my favorite-ever newspaper.
And now in Boston
My Sunday paper of choice remains the New York Times. The Times has not abandoned the idea that the Sunday edition of a newspaper should be something special. I especially look forward to its Week in Review and Book Review sections.
The major daily here is the Boston Globe, and I have an online subscription. I have an on again, off again relationship with the Globe, and for now we are on digital terms only. In fact, despite a surfeit of subscriptions to printed periodicals, I increasingly get much of my news and commentary online.
And to be honest, I wouldn’t trade the remarkable world of information and news available online for the days of waiting for the paper to be delivered. I, too, have been spoiled by point and click access to news coverage from around the nation and the world. However, at a time when we can use more civilized, enjoyable, and affordable rituals in our lives, reading the Sunday newspaper remains a pretty good choice.
This is a revised version of a piece I wrote for another blog three years ago.
Friday was a raw, wet, overcast October day here in Boston. For me, it meant that fall has truly arrived in New England. As my wholly repetitive earlier posts about fall attest (here and here), this is my favorite and most nostalgic season.
The change of seasons from summer to fall is rooted in the equinox, an astronomical term. As explained by Wikipedia:
An equinox is an astronomical event in which the plane of Earth’s equator passes the center of the Sun. . . . The Astronomical Almanac defines it, on the other hand, as the instants when the Sun’s apparent longitude is 0° or 180°. . . . The two definitions are almost, but not exactly equivalent. Equinoxes occur twice a year, around 21 March and 23 September.
The month will culminate with Halloween, that most candy-coated of holidays. It will include a viewing of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, a childhood favorite that still manages to get me in the Halloween spirit.
But Halloween is about much more than empty calories and chocolate fixes. Its origins are grounded in religion and death. Again, from Wikipedia:
Halloween . . . is a yearly celebration observed in a number of countries on 31 October, the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows’ Day. It initiates the three-day religious observance of Allhallowtide, . . . the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed believers. . . . Within Allhallowtide, the traditional focus of All Hallows’ Eve revolves around the theme of using “humor and ridicule to confront the power of death.” . . .
According to many scholars, All Hallows’ Eve is a Christianized feast initially influenced by Celtic harvest festivals, . . . with possible pagan roots, particularly the Gaelic Samhain. . . . Other scholars maintain that it originated independently of Samhain and has solely Christian roots.
Perhaps it was inevitable that ghosts, goblins, and haunted houses would eventually enter the picture!
I’m in the right part of the country for religion and the supernatural to mix. It’s a combination that goes waaay back. Rosalyn Schanzer opens Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem (2011), a short, lively, fact-filled narrative of the Salem, Massachusetts witch hunts of the 17th century, with a description of the Puritan mindset of the day:
Yet with all their fine intentions, the voyagers had brought along a stowaway from their former home — a terrifying, ancient idea fated to wreak havoc in their new land. For the Puritans believed in the existence of two entirely different worlds.
The first of these was the Natural World of human beings and everything else we can see or touch or feel. But rooted deep within the Puritans’ souls like some strange invasive weed lurked their belief in a second world, an Invisible World swarming with shadowy apparitions and unearthly phantoms in the air.
It shouldn’t surprise us that this New England milieu has produced legendary writers of scary stories such as Stephen King and H.P Lovecraft.
After polling friends on Facebook and elsewhere for their Stephen King recommendations, I bought a small bagful of his books (Pet Sematary, It, and Needful Things), all with Maine settings. This one is first up on my reading list:
In his new introduction to Pet Sematary, King calls it his scariest book, so much so that he believed it would never be published.
In other words, it’s a great choice for an October reading.
Travelers who suffer from chronic bouts of nostalgia (i.e., me) may face a familiar dilemma: Given a choice, do we explore new vistas or revisit old haunts? Do we step out in search of fresh discoveries, or do we retrace steps from back in the day?
When I booked my July trip to Vienna to attend the week-long International Congress on Law and Mental Health, I added a few days after the conference to do some sightseeing. I assumed that I would spend that extra time outside of the city.
My first and only previous visit to Austria occurred way back in 1981. Vienna, Salzburg, and Innsbruck were part of my whirlwind tour through western Europe after a semester abroad in England.
Of those cities, Salzburg — small, manageable, and with spectacular scenery — was by far my favorite. I even enjoyed “The Sound of Music” bus tour that my friend dragged me on, for it included many of the city’s most beautiful sites. By contrast, while I liked Vienna, it didn’t rank as a highlight of that leg of my sojourn.
So when I planned this current trip, I figured that I would squeeze in a quick visit to Salzburg during my add-on days. Hey, maybe I’d even join the hordes of other American tourists for a redux of “The Sound of Music” tour!
Ultimately, however, I decided to stick to Vienna. To my great delight, Vienna came alive for me this time around. I now understand why it is such a global attraction. The heart of Vienna is simply beautiful, with stunning architecture, public sculptures, and old city streets seemingly at every turn. The city also offers relatively inexpensive eateries and cafes serving up hearty food and beverages.
Vienna exudes a sense of cultural and intellectual history. Given that I was attending a law and mental health conference, I considered it semi-obligatory to visit the Sigmund Freud residence and museum. Although little of the original interior decor remains, there were plenty of exhibits and photographs to give you a sense of where he lived and practiced during the early 20th century.
An exhibit at the University of Vienna presented an unexpected opportunity to roam around the main building of one of Europe’s oldest universities, founded in 1365! For an urban campus, it was a notably serene academic setting.
When I first visited Europe in 1981, I had no idea that many wonderful singers and musicians demonstrated their talents on the streets of great cities.
Since then, I have been drawn to street performers. At first glance, I wondered if this man, with his walking stick, bucket, and visual impairment, was panhandling. But then he turned on his little music player and started to sing…wow…his voice was superb. It was a privilege to tip him a few Euros.
Of course, I also had to hunt down the city’s English language bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, tucked away in a nook of old Vienna that felt like a step back in time.
Thanks in part to the conference itself, I experienced a bit of Vienna’s classical music scene. Here are three of my friends and fellow conference participants, Shelley, Carol, and Nicole, in the pews of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, as we awaited the start of a classical music concert organized for our group by the International Academy on Law and Mental Health.
And here’s what that stunning cathedral looks like. Listening to a first-rate music performance in such a historic site was a treat.
The unsung star of Vienna was its subway system, which proved to be dependable, fast, and easy to navigate. In visiting a big city, I usually find that learning the basics of its subway system early on pays dividends throughout the trip. This was no exception!
I made an extended weekend trip to northwest Indiana for a long overdue visit with friends and family, one filled with both nostalgia for the past and appreciation for enduring friendships renewed.
Concededly, I am positively masochistic when it comes to self-inflicted nostalgia. During much of this trip, I had my rental car radio tuned to an oldies station that played songs mostly from the late 70s through early 80s. Like many, I associate old Top 40 songs with memories of earlier days, so I basically had a series of mental videos going through my head, prompted by whatever was on the air.
I put the nostalgia machine on overdrive when I had some time to kill before heading off to O’Hare Airport. I decided to spend a few hours driving around to old haunts.
It started with a visit to our early boyhood home in small-town Griffith, Indiana, where my brother Jeff and I spent our early years with our parents. I had not been there in many decades. I was stunned to see a cozy little block with a narrow street. In my memories of being five years old, it is a big, humongous block with a wide street!
I also stopped at the Hammond, Indiana house that was home for most of my childhood through teen years. No real surprises there…it and the surrounding homes were much more as I had remembered them.
For some odd reason I wanted to revisit the sites of jobs I had worked before moving to New York for law school in 1982. During several college summers and holiday periods, as well as an interim year between finishing college and leaving for law school, I worked for Ribordy Drugs, a local drugstore chain that once had a couple of dozen stores dotting northwest Indiana.
It was standard low-paid retail store work, unloading delivery trucks, tagging merchandise, and stocking shelves. Although I grumbled about it at times, I now look back and realize that those experiences helped me to develop a work ethic.
When I graduated from Valparaiso in 1981, I intended to take an interim year before moving on to law school. Alas, so-called “professional” jobs were not in large supply for new graduates in recession-burdened Northwest Indiana. So I ended up returning to Ribordy Drugs, this time working at its new warehouse-style store, a local precursor of the big box chain stores that now dominate the retail outlets in the area. I worked there more-or-less full-time, while also doing some part-time reporting for a local community newspaper.
It was not the most exciting year of my life, but because I was filing my law school applications, it was filled with anticipation. My original plan was to head to the west coast, but when an acceptance letter from New York University arrived in the mail, I knew that I wanted to go there. In August 1982, I would leave for NYU and the Big Apple.
But let me get back to people. The photo above is from a mini-reunion last Friday of college friends from Valparaiso University and assorted family members. The company of Hilda, Mark, Brad, Don, Maggie, Dave, Dorothy, Jim, Elena, Abby, and Matt made for a most enjoyable evening. The many smiling faces in the photo were more than snapshot poses. We were laughing a lot, unearthing stories from back in the day and sharing news of the latest goings-on in our lives.
At my motel, I also bumped into another group of VU alums holding their own little reunion, including friends Sheralynn (and a most articulate contributor to a running e-mail exchange about the suspense series 24 when it aired) and Rachelle (fellow study abroad participant). Their sorority was doing a kind of Chicagoland summer reunion caravan that concluded with a visit to their alma mater. Getting to see them was an unexpected treat.
The next day, I drove to Hammond, where I joined with my brother Jeff and old friends Mark and Karen for a meal at the House of Pizza, a restaurant than enjoys legendary status for its uniquely excellent thin crust pizza. Mark and I have been friends going waaaay back to the 3rd grade. And all four of us have been going to House of Pizza since we were kids. Sharing a meal at one of Chicagoland’s many superb pizza places has become a sort of tradition during visits there.
I then met up for a visit with my long-time friend Katherine (going back to high school), who first took me to the local Community Veteran’s Memorial, featuring some very well done historical exhibits and timelines. We then went to one of the local casinos (none of which were around when I grew up there), where we enjoyed a first-rate meal and won $10 playing the nickel slots. (I cannot recall the last time I was in a casino. What a surreal world onto itself.)
So here’s the lesson, especially for us nostalgia freaks: Old haunts are what they are, places of days gone by. It may be meaningful to revisit them, but they are of the past. When it comes to people, however, it’s about the present. The relationships built over the years may have their roots in long ago, but when they remain vibrant, and thankfully stripped of
our my early immaturities (er, at least some of them), that is a pretty cool thing.
In a New York Times real estate section piece last week, Alison Gregor spotlighted beautiful Brooklyn Heights. While I enjoyed the photos of this picturesque, historic neighborhood, what caused me to sit up straight were the real estate prices:
Depending on their size and the number of bathrooms they have, studio co-ops go for around $350,000 to $400,000; one-bedrooms for $450,000 to $750,000; two-bedrooms for $950,000 to $1.35 million; and three-bedrooms for $2.3 million to $3.2 million . . . .
. . . Rentals range from $2,000 to $4,000 a month for one-bedroom apartments; $2,500 to $6,500 for two-bedrooms; and $5,000 to $10,000 for three-bedrooms . . . .
Good grief. Brooklyn Heights has long been considered the borough’s jewel in the crown, thanks to its first-rate housing stock, wonderful urban vistas, and close proximity to Manhattan. But those housing numbers are staggering.
The price tags sent me into a nostalgic spin, recalling when I moved to Brooklyn in 1985, days after graduating from law school. . . .
Park Slope, here I come
With law school coming to a close in the spring of 1985, my days in the NYU residence hall were numbered. Late that semester, I was apprised of a possible apartment share in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn.
The Slope, as it was known (and probably still is), was a neighborhood “in transition” during an early period of gentrification in Brooklyn that seemed inevitable as Manhattan housing prices climbed steeply. I had accepted a position as a Legal Aid lawyer in lower Manhattan, starting at the princely salary of $20,000. Brooklyn was the most viable option in terms of convenience and price.
I agreed to join two others in renting a three-bedroom apartment in the top half of a brownstone owned by a young couple. Our monthly rent, to be split three ways, was $1,000. Yup, $1,000, split three ways.
Of course, the low monthly rent didn’t exactly make me Legal Aid’s version of Donald Trump (who, by the way, was coming into prominence right around then). The overall cost of living was high, and I was paying back student loans to boot.
Rough around the edges, but still good
Today Park Slope is home to well-to-do professionals and a fair share of celebrities, but back then it was a mix of long-time locals, farsighted buyers and speculators, and younger non-profit types priced out of Manhattan.
Overall, the streets closer to Prospect Park (another New York showpiece by Frederick Law Olmstead) were fancier and safer. Away from the park, the dicier things could get. I was mugged twice in Park Slope during my nine years there, and lots of other Slope denizens shared similar tales of criminal victimhood.
But no matter, this was during the heart of my love affair with New York. I enjoyed it on a shoestring, while dealing with its occasional hazards. And after three years of being a Manhattanite during law school, I explored parts of the wondrous Borough of Brooklyn, a place with as rich a history and variety of humanity as any in America.
My neighborhood’s in-transition status also meant that affordable eateries could still be found, albeit varying greatly in quality. I recall one diner on now-fancy Seventh Avenue, doors from the subway station, that served a thoroughly mediocre meatloaf platter, replete with imitation mashed potatoes and canned green beans. Taste aside, it was a filling match for my public interest lawyer’s budget, and so I ate there often after work.
Although the draw of Manhattan remained strong, I spent a fair share of my time in the Slope and its environs. Among other things, the area featured a neat little bookshop, a popular video store, and a dumpy but serviceable movie theatre. Soon after I moved there, I became active in a local reform Democratic club and volunteered for several campaigns.
Of course, the aforementioned Prospect Park was a wonderful draw. From the late spring through the early fall, lawyers and staff from our Legal Aid office would play weekly softball games there. It also was a great place for a walk with a friend or a slow afternoon with a book in hand.
The photo above shows the hardcover edition of Thomas Boyle’s Only the Dead Know Brooklyn (1985). It is the first entry in an entertaining crime trilogy featuring police detective Francis DeSales.
The real star of the book and the series, however, is the changing nature of Brooklyn, circa 1980s. I devoured Only the Dead when it first came out, and it helped me to understand the culture(s) of the borough, wrapped around a well-told story. It was also a fun read that nailed some of the details of living there, such as the view from the F train as it passed over the mega-polluted Gowanus Canal.
It has now been over 20 years since I’ve lived in Brooklyn. That chapter of my life seems like that of another epoch, no small milestone for someone whose nostalgic instincts can make events of decades ago feel like yesterday. Maybe it’s time to pull Only the Dead off the shelf and see how it reads many years later.
As a young grade schooler, I really wanted a camera. Already being an independent type, I was drawn to the Polaroid cameras that produced more-or-less instantaneous photos, as opposed to the Kodak-brand models that required you to take or mail your film to a photo lab to be developed. Unfortunately, the Polaroids also cost a mint, and so I assumed it would never happen.
But in 1965, TV commercials for a new model, the Polaroid Swinger, started airing, with catchy lyrics that hyped its (barely) under $20 price point: [Trivia questions: (1) Who is the leggy brunette featured in the commercial? (2) Who wrote and sang the jingle? Answers below!]
In case you want to sing along:
Hey, meet the swinger
meet the swinger
It’s more than a camera
it’s almost alive
it’s only nineteen dollars
Swing it up (yeah yeah)
it says yes (yeah yeah)
take the shot (yeah yeah)
count it down (yeah yeah)
zip it off
Don’t get me wrong; $19.95 was a lot of money back in that day. But it made it under the line for a Big Gift, and so for Christmas 1965, the Swinger made its way under the tree.
I was ecstatic. I probably took a full roll on Christmas Day alone, all 12 shots. And while I didn’t exactly become a serious photographer, I used it often and at one point had quite a stack of prints. I remember being especially proud when my Uncle Kenny asked me to take his picture so he could use it for his next U.S. government employee I.D. photo!
I also was a perfect example of the emerging power of television advertising. That darn jingle got into my head and stayed there, both before and after I received the camera as a gift.
You can read more about the Polaroid Swinger in this piece recently published on Boston.com, marking the camera’s 50th anniversary.
Trivia question answers: (1) Ali McGraw; (2) Barry Manilow. Yup!
On Thursday evening, I’ll be hopping on a plane for Vienna, Austria, for the biennial International Congress of Law and Mental Health, a week-long event that draws some 1,000 people from around the world. I’ll be presenting a paper on continuing legal education, attending plenty of panels, and enjoying the company of friends and colleagues who are immersed in research and practice related to law and psychology.
Traveling to Vienna pushes my nostalgia buttons. In May 1981, it was a stop on a brisk trip through parts of western Europe, following completion of a semester abroad in England via my college, Valparaiso University. The grainy photo above was taken from the famous Prater Wheel, a giant Ferris wheel built in 1897. If I recall correctly, I spent three days in Vienna with one of my traveling pals from the VU group.
That European jaunt was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Traveling alternately on my own and with members of our group, I visited Paris; several towns in Switzerland; Innsbruck, Salzberg, and Vienna; and finally Munich and Berlin.
The semester abroad also happened to be the final term of my senior year, and I was full of excitement and uncertainty as to what would come next. But even with all of my heady aspirations for the road ahead, I had the good sense to drink in a lot of this overseas opportunity. Although my cultural immaturity caused me to pass on some pretty significant sights during this sojourn abroad, those five months made a lifelong imprint on me.
Back to today: As usual, I find myself packing and planning at the last minute. However, I know that I’ll get a lot out of this trip. I’ll do so as a much more grounded person than the anxious young man who first saw Vienna several decades ago. The march of time brings its blessings.
As a little sidebar to this post, click and enjoy Billy Joel’s “Vienna” (1977). And to learn how the famous singer/songwriter did his homework about Vienna in writing this number, check out this interesting Wikipedia entry.
Late in my grade school years, I discovered a world of baseball board games that simulated the National Pastime through sophisticated play charts and statistical ratings of real-life major league baseball players. Dice or spinners typically served as activators for game play.
Most tabletop board games could be played solitaire or head-to-head. Devoted gamers could replay an entire season of a favorite team, or even a full-blown league. You could also play short schedules of your favorite teams, or draft players to stock your own teams and play a league schedule that way.
Every spring, pre-season baseball magazines such as Street & Smith‘s were chock full of tantalizing ads for these games, such as those pictured below. The sales pitch was simple and effective: It would appeal to a sports fan’s fantasies of managing a big league baseball team and of imagining themselves up at the plate or on the mound as their favorite players.
Some of these (mostly small) companies sold their games directly by mail. Others offered a “free” player performance card and brochure that described the game in greater detail, with ordering information included.
During the late 1960s and through the early 1980s, a lot of kids and young men discovered these games and drooled over the ads in the baseball magazines. We’d either order the games directly or send away for the descriptive brochures, and then we would wait in great anticipation for the mail delivery.
Even though, as these photos show, the games themselves were full of numbers, charts, and symbols, we weren’t disappointed. We were not expecting the equivalent of today’s video sports games, where players and their movements are rendered so realistically on the digital playing field. The charts, cards, and dice activated our mind’s eyes, so that we could recreate player performances on the tabletop and imagine the action on the field. More than a few of us would narrate the games like sports announcers, either in our heads or out loud.
Gil Hodges’ Pennant Fever, sold by Research Games, Inc., in New Jersey, was my first exposure to a serious baseball board game. Its statistical game engine wasn’t as sophisticated or as precise as some of the other baseball simulations on the market at the time, but its play descriptions fueled our imaginations.
For example, if you look closely at the photo above, you’ll see on the right a pitching card that says “Throw him blazing FAST BALLS.” Use of that card was specially limited to strikeout pitchers such as Juan Marichal and Sam McDowell. You’ll also see a pink CONNECTS chart, which was used when a dice roll resulted in the possibility of an extra base hit, especially a home run.
Pennant Fever had the added bonus of being among the less expensive offerings, and — unlike most of these games — it could be purchased at retail store outlets.
I also sent away for a neat little game, Extra Innings, that had an attractive price tag ($9.95), the novelty of a game contained in a three-ring binder, and an extensive basic package that included player performance ratings for the most recent season as well as all-time great teams and Hall of Famers.
The designer of the game, Jack Kavanaugh, was a retired ad man and a thinking man’s game designer. His Extra Innings Newsletter, a copy of which is pictured above, contained some of the most thoughtful commentary about the challenges of statistically reproducing baseball in a tabletop simulation game that I’ve ever read. Kavanaugh is no longer with us, but his game still has a devoted following today.
I played a lot of Negamco’s Major League Baseball. This game, as you can see below, was activated by a spinner, which would create a few extra seconds of suspense for each play sequence. It wasn’t the most realistic game around, but it was easy to play and had a somewhat addictive quality to it. I recall summer nights when I’d stay up late to play just one more game.
If you want to read a great boyhood remembrance about playing Negamco baseball, check out Mayer Schiller’s “Killer Goryl” in the Elysian Fields Quarterly. And in 2011, Michael Weinreb wrote a similarly evocative long form piece for Grantland about playing another popular offering, Statis-Pro baseball, as an adolescent: “Statis-Pro Baseball: An Instruction Manual”
When it came to baseball board games, however, the big kids on the block were Strat-O-Matic (SOM) and APBA. Both games had been around for some time: APBA debuted in the early 1950s (and it was based on an earlier game that appeared in the 1930s!), and SOM appeared in the early 1960s. As the ads below indicate, you sent away for a brochure and game samples first, then made the decision to buy.
The brochures were incredibly descriptive, and for a young baseball fan conjured up images of managing a favorite team and players to the World Series, replete with box scores and statistical sheets marking the season’s progress. If you want a sense of how the marketing and advertising for these games captured our imaginations, go to the APBA Baseball Archives and click around.
APBA and SOM were also among the most expensive offerings — somewhere in the $15-20 range for full editions if memory serves me right. Their game parts were first rate, and each player was represented by his own performance card. (Most of the less expensive games featured team roster sheets with the relevant player data rather than individual cards.)
Here are cards from a reissue of APBA’s 1968 season:
And here are cards from a commemorative reprint of SOM’s very first edition:
These are the Good Old Days
APBA and SOM were both beyond my meager allowance back in the day, but as you can see from the photos, I’ve become a collector and occasional player of both games today. And as I collect vintage seasons, I keep telling myself that when I retire in X number of years, I’ll play them all the time!
Which brings up another point: Bouts of nostalgia aside, for anyone who wishes to play some type of baseball simulation game, these are the good old days, because diverse and fun options abound.
There’s still a steady interest in and demand for tabletop baseball simulations, stoked primarily by guys 40 and older. To capture the flavor of current offerings and interests, check out the Delphi Table Top Sports forum.
Another great site is Tabletop-sports.com, which hosts an active forum and links Downey Games, a popular sports game company offering well over a dozen game titles. The One For Five blog and magazine also provide lots of support for the hobby.
The APBA and Strat-O-Matic game companies are still offering their famous baseball games, now in charts & dice, computer, and online versions. Previous seasons are readily available from the companies and via a rich resale market through online forums such as the Delphi site and e-Bay.
They are joined by many other small companies offering a multitude of tabletop and computer baseball simulations. Replay, History Maker, and Ball Park (once favored by famed baseball statistician Bill James) are among the popular offerings.
I recently supported a Kickstarter campaign for Pine Tar Baseball, a new offering that appears to be carving a niche by recreating 19th century baseball seasons.
Computer baseball simulations are often remarkably deep and sophisticated in their game play. The Out of the Park computer baseball game, and its boiled down tablet/smartphone version, for example, allow players not only to replay past seasons and create fictitious leagues, but also to play the role of owner and general manager. (I’m partial to OOTP because it’s one of the few baseball sims available for the Mac as well as for Windows.)
Of course, the major video game platforms offer baseball sims that put a premium on hand-eye coordination, with some stunning graphics and features to boot.
And if you’re like me, you’ll also want to manage a fantasy baseball team or two.
The Draw of Baseball on a Tabletop
Especially for guys who grew up rooting for their favorite teams and players and who tracked baseball stats in the daily paper, these baseball simulations retain a special draw. They provide us with a connection to a beloved boyhood sport in a way that allows us to participate and play in a league of our own, and to relive the exploits of diamond heroes of days past.
As I’ve mentioned before here, my friend Ken Heard, a professional journalist, writes a marvelous blog — Love, Life and APBA Baseball — detailing his devotion to the APBA baseball game and how replaying past historic seasons has been a form of entertainment, engagement, and sometimes refuge over the years. Two summers ago I wrote an extended piece about Ken’s blog for my own professional blog.
Last year, I wrote a post about writer Jack Kerouac’s homebrewed tabletop baseball game, replete with fictitious players and news accounts of their on the field exploits. Kerouac kept up his fictional baseball league for years.
And Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (1968) is considered a minor classic and one of the best books about the dramatic pull of baseball. It’s a novel about a man who invents his own cards & dice baseball game and becomes lost in the life of his fictitious baseball league.
So yes, there is something about baseball and the imagination that keeps us attracted to these simulations of the National Pastime. Even if they become obsessions, we could do a lot worse.
The brutal winter that we experienced here in Boston has finally given way to more civilized weather, even if piles of snow collected during January and February and deposited in designated snow removal areas have not fully melted.
Summer beckons, even though the temperature here remains very cool and spring-like. I’m not complaining — I can live with spring and fall weather very happily, thank you. But especially now that my classes are done and I’m finished grading exams and papers, I sort of expect it to be warmer.
Nevertheless, the cool, nice weather has made it comfortable to walk around a bit and take a few snapshots, which I’m happy to share with you.
This time of year triggers bouts of nostalgia for me. Thirty years ago, I graduated from NYU School of Law and began studying for the New York bar exam, a fun little ordeal I wrote about last year.
I had already accepted a position with New York City Legal Aid Society, fulfilling my wish to work as a public interest lawyer. First, however, I had to get through the summer bar study. I managed do to so, but not without feeling sorry for myself an awful lot of that time. In particular, as I wrestled with studying for the exam itself, I badly missed many of my best friends from law school, who took their talents across the country to start their legal careers.
My previous law school summers were memorable. I spent the summer after my second year working as a summer associate at a large corporate law firm in Chicago, an experience I wrote about in a post last year. It taught me a lesson that I share with many of my students: Sometimes experiences that help you eliminate options are as valuable as those that help you to create choices.
I spent the summer after my first year working at the New Jersey Public Defender’s office, while living in one of the NYU law dorms. Heh, one of the things I remember most about that summer was the opening of Steve’s Ice Cream in the Village. Steve’s was a Boston ice cream brand that popularized the practice of toppings hand mixed into your chosen flavor of ice cream. I was making the princely minimum wage that summer, and a chunk of those meager earnings went to Steve’s.
Thirty-five years ago, I had finished my junior year at Valparaiso University. I spent a lot of time serving in a key Indiana volunteer role for the independent Presidential campaign of John B. Anderson, which I wrote about here last June. I also studied hard for the Law School Admissions Test, which I took that summer.
A few weeks after taking the LSAT, I would learn that I did well enough to have some attractive options for law school. Originally I had every intention of attending law school on the west coast, but NYU was too appealing to turn down.
Since becoming a professor, most summers have been devoted in large part to various research and writing projects typically leading to the publication of articles in scholarly law journals. During the summer of 1998, for example, I did a lot of the spadework on my first article examining the legal and policy implications of workplace bullying, eventually published in 2000. It would prove to be a groundbreaking piece that helped to plant the seeds for a movement to enact workplace anti-bullying laws.
This summer I’ve been finishing up a piece on legal scholarship and “intellectual activism,” the latter being a term that I use to describe the process of engaging in research and analysis of a significant legal problem, designing proposed law reform and public policy responses, and then going into a more public mode with those proposals. It harnesses many of the experiences I’ve had and lessons I’ve learned over the past twenty or so years.
Of course, I also am grateful for the flexibility my job affords me to spend the summer working on a largely self-defined schedule. That very flexibility allows me the time to step out the door and take a few photos of this walkable city.