Blind Mumbling

A compilation of writings that never got anyone excited.

Name:
Location: N. Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, United States

Former teacher, co-editor of Total Football and the author of more than 20 books and over 200 articles, most about sports history. His credits include Pro Football: When the Grass Was Real, The Hidden Game of Football (with John Thorn and Pete Palmer), Baseball Between the Lies, The Importance of Napoleon, and the Battle of Stalingrad. He is presently Executive Director of the Pro Football Researchers Association.

Friday, March 31, 2006

THE FIRST HUT

By Dr. Charles T. Gregory (Guest Blogger)
Professor of Leisure History and Comparative Phrenology, Mountebank University

I hope the reader will forgive me if I digress from my usual baseball lecture in favor of a fascinating football story about the origin of the term “hut.” It was related to me by my old college history professor, Dr. Ajax R. Kayuk, a gentleman of impeccable honor and whose word I would certainly take as gospel.

In 1906, the forward pass was legalized. Most important football teams, college and pro, decided to ignore it on the ground that it was an unnatural act. However, Willis Kryhoski, the coach at Wilmerding Normal (now Wilmerding State Teachers), about 20 miles from Pittsburgh, saw in the pass a way to give his heretofore woebegone team a chance to win. As a foot­note, the Wilmerding Bulls hadn’t registered a single victory during the 1905 season.

As soon as his team assembled that fall, Coach Kryhoski had them begin practicing forward passes. They soon discovered that one hand worked best and spirals were preferable to end-over-end. Coach Kryhoski deter­mined that Jason Gribble, his quarterback, was fairly adept in throwing, but that only one of his ends, Harold Skub, was able to catch the ball. The other end, Stanley Mueller, not only was hopeless on thrown balls, he tended to drop the football when it was handed to him.

So, from the start, Kryhoski’s air attack was limit­ed to Gribble-to-Skub. Unfortunately, while both were competent athletes, neither was much in the mental department. Or, as Kryhoski put it, “Gribble’s thicker in the head than a elephant is in the ass, and he’s the smart one!”

Nevertheless, the passing attack worked well in practice, as Gribble and Skub connected consistently. Now you must understand that this was a totally new way to move the football, and there was no existing termi­nology. Such niceties as “Z-out,” “Stop and go,” or “Button-hook” were far in the future. At first, Grib­ble and Skub made up their own signals for pass pat­terns. These signals were called at the line of scrim­mage, by the way, as the huddle was not widely used until much later. The rudimentary pass patterns simply involved Skub running straight downfield from his right end position, racing toward the middle, or cutting diagonally across. Gribble would call, “Straight!” “Middle!” or “Cross!”

Coach Kryhoski felt this was a little obvious and that opponents would quickly diagnose Wilmerding’s intentions. He watched Gribble for several days before he made a suggestion. Lined across the north end of Wilmerding’s field, behind the end zone, were three small sheds. The ones at either corner of the end zone were used as dressing rooms for the Bulls and the visitors, and the one in the middle for storage. The coach told Gribble to think of them as “Bulls’ shed,” “storage shed,” and “visitors’ shed,” and to direct Skub toward one or another in his signals, thereby masking the pass pattern from the enemy. After several days of practice, Skub managed to remember which shed was which.

A few days before Wilmerding’s opening game, an incident took place on campus that was to have far-reaching reverbations. Jason Gribble was active in campus politics and indeed had been only narrowly defeated in his run for sophomore class treasurer the year before. The burning issue on the Wilmerding campus that fall of 1906 was freedom of speech. This because the school library had removed a work by Oscar Wilde from its shelves over the summer. Many students were upset -- perhaps a majority -- and a rally was held on the campus green.

Gribble, of course, realized that he could advance his political hopes by being in the forefront of a “hot” issue. He managed to wangle a spot as one of the speakers at the rally.

Although many students spoke with more logic, ver­bosity, and erudition, it was Gribble who drew the loudest cheers when he faced the crowd and bellowed, “If I want to say (bleep), I’ll darn well say (bleep), by heck!”

The next day, nearly every area newspaper carried an account of the rally with Gribble’s pronouncement prominently featured. The Pittsburgh Press even had a picture -- a cartoon actually -- of Gribble standing on a soapbox, with fist upraised, shouting words that were plastered over with “censored.” Although eyewitnesses insisted that Gribble had not actually raised his fist and that he’d stood on the pedestel of the statue of General Horatio Wilmerding, the school’s founder, they all agreed that it was a fine likeness of the young firebrand.

For its opening game, Wilmerding hosted Allegheny Mines and Farm Machinery. As soon as WN had possession of the football, Gribble walked up to his quarterback position and called, “Bulls’ shed!”

He was shocked when the referee, a Mr. Lionel Tau­ber, stepped in and penalized Wilmerding for bad lan­guage. It turned out that Tauber was slightly hard of hearing and, recognizing Gribble from the newspaper cartoon, had misinterpreted what the fiery quarterback had said. No amount of persuasion on the part of Gribble could convince Tauber that the word uttered had actually been “shed.”

For the time being, Wilmerding was stifled. Gribble was afraid to call another pass play for fear of being penalized, and WN was soon forced to punt. AM & FM ran the ball back all the way for a touchdown.

Things might have gone better had Gribble and Skub been able to talk with Coach Kryhoski at that point, but the rules of the time forebade coaching from the sideline. Before they lined up to receive the ensuing kickoff, the two young athletes discussed their pre­dicament. They reasoned that they needed to employ a word other than “shed” to denote the small buildings that were the key to their passing game. Skub suggest­ed “outbuilding;” Gribble came up with “enclosure.” They settled on “hut” and numbered the buildings from right to left.

On Wilmerding’s first play after receiving, Gribble called out, “Hut one!” AM & FN was caught flatfooted as Skub raced straight down the field to take a beauti­ful forward pass from Gribble. It would surely have gone for a touchdown had not Skub stumbled over a recalcitrant blade of grass at the ten-yard-line. The Bulls tried two running plays without gain and the first quarter ended.

The teams reversed ends of the field. Perhaps Gribble might have said something to Skub as Wilmerding walked back up the field, but, as he admitted later, he was somewhat put out that his end had fallen down on the way to a sure touchdown. He determined that the third-down play would be another pass, and as soon as his team lined up, he hollered, “Hut three!”

Gribble naturally assumed that his end would be able to mentally transpose the sheds from one end of the field to the other, but such cleverness was far beyond poor Skub. When the ball was centered, he turned and ran UP the field away from the goal line and toward the real shed at the far end of the gridiron. This maneu­ver totally confused poor Gribble who compounded the error by actually throwing the football toward the retreating Skub. Ironically, the addled quarterback never threw a more perfect spiral.

The result was a completed lateral pass and ulti­mately a safety. The demoralized Wilmerding squad eventually lost by 40 points. Even though the “wrong- way” play accounted for only two points, it was head­lined in most western Pennsylvania newspaper accounts of the game.

The Pittsburgh Press re-ran the same cartoon of Gribble on a soap box, but this time he was shouting “Hut one!” Several eastern newspapers also picked up the story. “Hut one, hut two” became the in-joke of the season, and several teams began incorpo­rating it into their signals, often catching their opponents back on their heels rocking with laughter.

It is said that when DeWolfe Hopper’s famed recita­tion of “Casey at the Bat” failed to amuse his audience, he could always save the situation by intoning “Hut one, hut two.”

Harold Skub dropped out of school and is believed to have joined the French Foreign Legion.

Jason Gribble, who was arguably more at fault, continued his education, finally graduating in 1910. But “hut one, etc.” continued to haunt him. No matter what he tried, he was not taken seriously. In the fall of 1911, after failing twice in business, he ran for the Pennsylvania state legistature. His opponent countered with the slogan: “I never hutted once!” Reportedly, the only votes Gribble received were his own and that of the ever-supportive Coach Kryhoski.

In desperation, Gribble left the country, taking a job as an able seaman aboard the passenger ships of the White Star Line. This may explain the famous quotation alleged to have been uttered on the bridge of the Titanic in 1913: “Iceberg? Don’t be silly. That’s old ‘Hut-One’ Gribble on lookout.”

Friday, March 24, 2006

IS THERE A SUBTRACT LIB ?

I used to love those old Bing Crosby movies where Der Bingle seemed to ad lib his way through the whole picture. No matter what kind of predicament he got himself into, Bing would pop up with a clever remark that you just knew no script writer ever thought up. Talk about thinking on your feet!

I’m the anti-Bing. I ad lib as well as I do rocket science. If you need to mess up a scene in a play, just put me in a situation where I have to think on my feet.

I suppose the worst example was my first role at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. Between various "little" and summer theaters, I’ve done over 100 roles. Although many of them were marred by my horrendous ad libs, the Playhouse was the most important theater I ever acted in, so ad libbing there counted more against me.

We were doing The Little Foxes, Lillian Hellman’s classic drama about a selfish, post-Civil War family. I was playing Oscar, the second brother, a churlish, mean-spirited, wife-beating, cowardly creep. I loved the part.
Except for smacking Birdie.

Birdie was Oscar’s – my – wife. Early in the play, she said something that angered Oscar. As she started to walk past, I smacked her right in the face. Smacking her made me nervous.

The act of hitting Birdie was good for my character. It showed what a really nasty person Oscar was and set everyone in the audience against me. Which was fine. Of course, I wouldn’t really smack her, I’d slap her cheek with a cupped hand. She’d roll with the blow. We’d end up with a loud, vicious-looking smack that didn’t actually hurt a bit.

Unless.

Unless I miscalculated and missed her cheek and slapped her in the ear. That, as she brightly informed me early in rehearsals, could blow out her eardrum. Thanks a lot, Birdie! That sure relaxed me! Each night, right from the first rehearsal, I worried about that slap until I got it out of the way.

The director had a clever way to open the show. When the audience came into the theater, they saw an empty living room. About half an hour before the show was scheduled to begin, they heard sounds of conversation from behind an upstage set of sliding doors. The idea was that the family was eating dinner behind those doors. To that end, the director had the cast assemble and ad lib a family dinner for thirty minutes. He believed that it put us into character.

When it was time for the play to begin, the lights came up on the stage. Addie, the maid, entered from a door downstage and closed a window. Then Cal, the butler, entered from the other side carrying a tray with glasses and a bottle of red wine. Addie took the tray from Cal and they exchanged a couple of lines before Birdie, my wife, came through the sliding doors upstage. She told Cal and Addie how wonderful everything looked, and then she was to give me my cue to enter.

So there I stood on opening night trembling behind those sliding doors awaiting my first entrance on the Pittsburgh Playhouse stage, when I heard a crash and some lines we’d never rehearsed. I peeked through the crack between the two sliding doors. Disaster! The tray, the wine bottle, and the glasses were strewn on the floor! All the cherry kool-aid that masqueraded as wine was soaking into the rug.

None of the plastic glasses had broken. Addie, Birdie, and Cal got busy gathering up the mess, re-filling the glasses, and ad libbing like mad. Where was my cue to enter! Twice I started to go through the doors only to realize they were not done cleaning up the mess. It seemed they went on forever, but at last the glasses were filled and Birdie emoted my cue. Desperately trying to look fierce, I slid the doors open, stepped through, and closed them behind my back.

And one of the doors fell off! It fell back into the set where it leaned against a wall. I couldn’t ignore it. When it fell, it pulled me back. It was time for one of my smooth ad libs.

I sidled over to the nearest actor and ordered, "Tell Cal to fix that." I cleverly jerked my thumb toward the fallen door.

Too late I realized that the actor to whom I had given my ad libbed order for Cal to "fix that" was indeed Cal himself. The actor looked at me as though I’d grown another head.

I struggled in the scene that was to conclude with the dreaded Birdie-smack. Cal was behind me tinkering with the wounded door. My mind was desperately groping with remembering my lines, worrying about the approaching assault on Birdie, and whether I had to go through those damned doors again. I survived, but it was not my finest fifteen minutes on stage.

The next day, the play was reviewed in the local press. Although generally favorable about the production, the reviewer noted that the actor playing Oscar "appeared nervous in his role."

Well, duh! I’d like to see that reviewer walk on stage to a tray-wreck, a broken door, and a prospective deafening of a fellow actor. I’ll bet that would have even thrown Bing.

Friday, March 17, 2006

CHECKING THE MAGAZINE STAND

According to Weird Buildings-R-Us, the Leaning Tower of Pisa is an example of erectile dysfunction.

According to Football Health and You, the NFL’s bad news is that steroids are still a problem. The good news: not a single NFL lineman has ever been treated for anorexia nervosa.

According to Reasonably Happy Marriage, nice guys finish last. That’s what makes them great lovers.

According to Inside Dirt, by 2056, the Hollywood Walk of Fame will stretch all the way to Portland, Oregon.

According to Parent & Kid, when your son says he wants to be a soprano, he’s not planning on turning gay. However, keep your gun locked up.

According to the Slippery-Slope Theory, by 2015 all NFL quarterbacks will be named Manning.

According to Your Friend Oil, the U.S. energy policy’s acronym is GOUGE for Giant Oil Unveiling Gigantic Earnings.

Friday, March 10, 2006

DURN DANES!

(Originally publidhed in The Coffin Corner)

Recently, the wire services ran a story that researchers had found references to "baseball" years earlier than its traditional 1839 invention by U.S. General Abner Doubleday. Supposedly, the early dates brought into question that baseball was first played in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Well, duh! In truth, no responsible baseball historian and few serious fans have put any faith in the Doubleday yarn for nearly half a century. The new dates may be of interest, but they hardly disprove what was thoroughly disproved long ago. It’s like NASA suddenly announced the world isn’t flat after all.

Although baseball’s history has been rehashed ad nauseum, the origins of football have not had the same wide exposure. As a consequence, a number of myths about football’s early years are still out there and likely to show up in otherwise learned manuscripts.

F’rinstance, just about everybody who writes about football’s origins has to bring up Kick-the-Dane’s-Head. As I’m sure you know, the mean old Danes conquered England in the 900’s or so. By a hundred years later, the Dane’s went back to Daneland and the English sat around waiting for William to conquer them in 1066.

According to the myth, the Englishers so hated the Danemarkians that they’d dig up the skulls of those presumably dead Danes who’d been buried there and give them a good pasting. All this Danish pastry eventually devolved into a game where whole teams of Brits tried to kick a Dane’s skull from one village to another.

Now if those kickers were smart enough to figure out they couldn’t kick the whole Dane for miles, I think they were probably smart enough to know that kicking skulls makes your toes smart. I mean, skulls are hard! And toes are soft! Especially that one that runs piggely-wiggely all the way home.

I’ll just bet those Saxons had a different angle. I’ll bet they filled a bag or a pig’s bladder with straw and then called it a "Dane’s Head."

Those Saxons were pretty slick. Especially the ones that lived in villages. I heard there was even a TV show about it -- Saxon the City.

Friday, March 03, 2006

IN SEARCH OF THE HISTORICAL CASEY

By Dr. Charles T. Gregory (Guest Blogger)
Professor of Leisure History and Comparative Phrenology,Mountebank University

"But," and I paused dramatically, "there is NO joy in Mudville -- Mighty Casey has STRUCK OUT!" I’d never recited "Casey at the Bat" with more fire. When I pantomimed "and now he let’s it go," an imaginary baseball rocketed from my hand toward the imaginary plate. When the air was "shattered by the force of Casey’s blow," the windows nearly rattled. I half expected applause. But, of course, a roomful of blase third-graders hadn’t yet learned the proper response to a brilliant dramatic recitation.

"Is that it?" asked Katherine (with a K), a chubby blonde behind buck teeth.

"Yes. Did you like it?" I asked.

"It was okay. Can I be excused?"

"In a few moments, Katherine. First, we should discuss the poem."

Mrs. Offenbach, the principal at Wilmerding Elementary, had warned me the class would try to take advantage of a substitute teacher. In many ways, she’d said, these moppets were far more diabolical than the college students to whom I normally lectured. "We’re happy that the university is on spring break and you are willing to stand in for Miss Slogg while she has her operation, but you must be careful or your whole class will be off to the rest room," Mrs. Offenbach had cautioned.

"Now, class," I said, "was there any part of the poem you didn’t understand?"

"Who’d Casey play for?" asked John, a pale redhead with a superior smirk.

"Mudville. The Mudville nine."

"There ain’t no Mudville in either league," John announced.

"‘There isn’t any Mudville.’"

"That’s right," John agreed. "I know all the teams in the majors. You want to hear them?"

"Not right now, John. Mudville is a --"

"Can I be excused?" Katherine interrupted.

"-- in a few minutes, Katherine. Mudville is clearly fictitious?" I explained. "‘Fictitious’ means --"

"It ain’t real." John finished.

"Well, not real in the sense of being --"

"If it’s not real," Kim, a lump of indeterminate sex in the third row, protested, "who cares?"

"We often suspend our disbelief to enjoy the vicarious --"

"Yeah, who cares?" John agreed. Several others in the class nodded.

"Wait," I said. "You watch stories on television, don’t you."

"I Witness Video" John said.

"And Rescue 911 and Top Cops and Unsolved Mysteries," Kim added.

"And 60 Minutes and 20/20," John continued. Those are all real."

"Except for Andy Rooney," Kim shouted.

"Can I be ex --"

"Just a minute, Kath --"

"Andy Rooney is so real," John insisted.

"Is not," countered Kim.

"Is too," testified John.

"No," Kim said. "Andy Rooney’s an actor. My father told me he used to be in a lot of movies in the olden days. I saw one called Boy’s Town on the Late Show. It was so old it was in black and white and Andy didn’t have any wrinkles!"

"Kim," I said, "Your father may have confused Andy Rooney with Mickey Roon --"

"Why’d they make movies in black and white in the olden days anyway?" Jennifer asked. She had been sitting shyly in the back. "Did people see like that then?"

"They just didn’t know any better," John said brightly. "Isn’t that right, Mr. Gregory?"

"That’s Doctor Gregory, John. Can we get back to ‘Casey at the Bat?’"

"But if there wasn’t any Mudville and there wasn’t any Casey," Jennifer asked. "What difference does it make?"

The class rumbled in agreement.

"Now wait a minute, people," I said desperately, "while the names Mudville and Casey may be fictitious, it’s altogether possible that Ernest K. Thayer based his poem on a real incident."

"Like an NBC movie?" Kim asked.

"Well, sort of," I agreed.

"And did they change the names to protect the innocent?" asked Jennifer.

"Perhaps."

"Well," John said, "why can’t you tell us the true story?"

"John, you have to understand --"

"It’s probably another government cover-up," Jennifer said.

"Casey-gate!" blurted Kim.

"Tell us the truth!" the whole class began to chant. "Tell us the truth! Tell us the Truth!"

"Uh -- Katherine, you may be excused."

"Never mind now," she sulked. "It’s too late."

"John, will you find the janitor and ask for a mop?"

I must admit that by the time I arrived home that evening, I was in a state. If I was to maintain any credibility with that class of terrors, I’d have to tell them the facts behind "Casey at the Bat." But what were the facts? In all my baseball research, even when I was preparing my book, A History of Balls of the Base Variety, I hadn’t looked into Casey.

The key, I felt, was in identifying Mudville. If I could decipher the real city in Thayer’s poem, I could go to team rosters, and then work through the season to find the right game. The poem, I knew, was first published in a San Francisco newspaper in 1888. Could San Francisco itself be Mudville? Was it there that Thayer saw Casey, whoever Casey was?

But, when I looked up Thayer, I found something odd. When the poem was published, he had already moved back East and was living in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Suddenly, inspiration struck. I visualized Thayer coming east on a train. He’s bored with the long trip and gets off at some city along the way to break up his trip. While visiting, he goes to a baseball game. It’s there that he sees the event that he will make famous. When he continues his train journey, he composes "Casey" to pass the time. And once he arrives in Worcester, he encloses the poem in a letter he sends to his friends back in San Francisco.

Often, in seeking the truth, one must create a reasonable hypotheses in order to know where to look for the rest of the story. This felt right! Mudville was a midwestern city -- and surely one with a major league team in 1888, for certainly Thayer couldn’t have reached such poetic heights by writing about minor leaguers.

But what city? I re-read Thayer’s opening line: "It looked extremely rocky for the Mudville nine that day." The word "rocky" seemed an odd choice. Could Thayer have meant it as a clue to Mudville? My hand trembled as I opened my atlas. There it was! ROCK Island, Illinois! But wait, Rock Island had only a minor league team in 1888. And suddenly I saw the logic. The Mudville team had played badly that day, just like the MINOR leaguers in Illinois -- Rock Island. And this was a shame because the Mudville nine was the MAJOR league team in the land of Lincoln -- Chicago!

I believed in my theory, but I needed some more proof. And, the next moment it was there before my eyes. I knew that Chicago in 1888 was already a meat-packing center -- hog butcher of the world, so to speak. Thousands of animals in open air pens! The smell must have been unbelievable to a stranger visiting for a few days on his way east. Thayer had put it into his poem by naming the city. Obviously "mud" was a literary pun on the French word merde which he dared not use in those Victorian times. Definitely Chicago.

I next pulled out my dog-eared copy of All-Time Rosters of Major League Baseball Clubs to find the names of Chicago’s 1888 players. In addition to Casey, Thayer named four other players in the poem: Cooney, Burrows, Flynn, and Blakey. Two names were only slightly disguised. Catcher Silver Flint was obviously "Flynn." Pitcher George Borchers just as obviously "Burrows." I wondered whether Thayer had intentionally disguised the names or simply mis-remembered them later on the train when he wrote the poem. Then, in a flash, I realized he would have had to adjust some names to fit the poem’s meter! "Cooney" and "Blakey" were no doubt used in place of longer names that would have produced non-scanning lines. Once I recognized that obvious fact, I was certain the two real players were outfielder George Van Haltren and shortstop Ned Williamson.

At that point, I was reasonably certain I knew who "Casey" was too. But first I had to find a game that fit the situation in the poem. I got to the library only an hour before it closed. Fortunately, our local paper is on microfilm all the way back to 1864. Even more fortunately, it carried box scores and brief accounts of all the league games during the season of 1888.

I expected Thayer to have changed the incident slightly for dramatic purposes. With that knowledge, it didn’t take me long to find the correct game.

It occurred on June 16. Chicago lost to New York 8-4. Thayer halved the score to make the game appear closer. There actually was no one on base in the last of the ninth, so Thayer simply invented two base-runners to make a "Mudville" victory possible. And "Casey" didn’t strike out; he much less dramatically popped to shortstop. Once I had my mind inside Thayers’, so to speak, the game, despite his clever obfuscations, was easily identified.

"Casey" himself was a cinch because Thayer had retained the middle "s" in the player’s name. The final two letters in "Casey" were changed from "on" to the beginning of the word "eye" because the real player was not merely "on" the team but the one who "oversaw" it’s actions. And the "Ca" in "Casey" represented the beginning of the real player’s famous nickname -- "Cap!" Yes, "Casey" was none other than Hall of Fame first baseman and Chicago manager Adrian Constantine "Cap" Anson!

In wonderment, I realized that Thayer had undoubtedly wanted readers to see through his camouflage, but it had taken over a hundred years for someone clever enough to come along. Not that I want to pat myself on the back, so to speak.

I couldn’t wait to go to school the next day to show those little bra -- brainy children what a dedicated researcher could accomplish. But shortly after I arose the next morning, I received a phone call from Mrs. Offenbach.

"Mrs. Slogg has decided to postpone her operation and will be returning today, Dr. Gregory, so we won’t need you at Wilmerding Elementary."

I was disappointed. I could have used the extra day’s pay. However, I told Mrs. Offenbach that I would still drop around to tell the students of a discovery I’d made.

"Dr. Gregory," she said, "I looked into the third grade after school yesterday. Half of our textbooks are wet. There is paste in the pencil sharpener. The drinking fountain now spurts across the room. Our large alphabet letters around the blackboard spell out dirty words. The blackboards themselves have been finger-painted yellow. Mrs. --"

"Perhaps I should have kept a tighter rein," I admitted.

"-- Slogg’s filing cabinet is smashed flat --"

"For show-and-tell, John brought a sledge hammer."

"-- and three desks are missing. If you ever set foot on these grounds again, I’ll have you shot!"

I didn’t care to argue with an obviously emotionally overwrought woman. Besides, she’d hung up. However, I still wanted to tell those kids -- particularly that smirky little John -- about Casey. I thought I could simply stand on the sidewalk and call to the third grade class when it came out for recess.

I certainly wasn’t loitering. I tried to tell that to the officer. When Sergeant What-Ever-His-Name-Is comes back to the interrogation room, I’ll explain it all to him calmly and rationally. Pervert indeed!

Or perhaps I should ask for a lawyer.