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Archive for September, 2008

I first heard of Babi Yar when watching the mini-series War and Remembrance back in the 1980’s.  As a teenager, it was a particularly difficult portion for me to watch because of the violence it portrayed, but producer Dan Curtis was determined to remain as true as possible to the events that transpired while still maintaining the decency required to show it on television.

The year was 1941, and Germany was steamrolling over the Soviet Union on its way to Moscow.  Hundreds of miles to the South, progress was a little slower, so Adolf Hitler diverted forces from the North to help even out the front lines.  With the added boost in personnel and armor, the Wehrmacht was rolling again, surrounding a large Russian contingent in the city of Kiev.  After desperate fighting, the city fell on September 19th.

Shortly after the takeover, several buildings occupied by the Germans were blown up.  Though later it would be shown that the NKVD (Russian security) forces were responsible, for the Germans (as we have seen before) it was an opportunity for revenge, this time on a grand scale.  All Jews in Kiev were informed that they would need to assemble near the city cemetary for deportation.  Any refusing to do so would be shot.

And so, on September 29, 1941, they gathered…by the thousands.  And the Germans deported them in groups…to Babi Yar, a large ravine in the northern suburbs of Kiev.  There they were stripped of their possessions, stripped of the theirs clothes, lined up on the edge of the ravine, and machine-gunned.  This obscene act would be repeated hundreds of times and, during the two days, nearly 34,000 Jewish men, women, and children would be slaughtered.

When it was finished, the Germans gathered up the valuables, gathered up the clothes, covered the bodies with dirt, and left.  Over the next 18 months, an estimated 70,000+ additional people would meet their end here.  And then in 1943, when the war began to turn against Germany, all the corpses would be dug up and burned by the Germans in an effort to hide their deeds.

As we have said before, the war between Germany and Russia was a no-holds-barred, nothing-is-sacred conflict.  And for the Jewish people, caught between German hatred and Russian indifference, the events at Babi Yar were just the beginning of the nightmare.

Recommended Reading: The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945

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On the eve of September 28, 1941, Boston Red Sox great Ted Williams had a tough decision to make.  It was the night before the final day of the season…one of the most memorable seasons in baseball history.  A young Yankee star named Joe Dimaggio had gotten a hit in 56 straight games.  Dick Wakefield had received an unbelievable $52,000 to play for the Tigers.  Jimmie Foxx had driven in 100 runs…for the 13th consecutive year.  A pitcher named Feller won 25 games.  And batting helmets made their first appearance.

And then there was Williams, whose season was one for the ages.  Heading into the final day of play, Williams’ average sat at .39955, which rounds to .400, quite possibly the most coveted number in all of baseball.  Two hits per five official at-bats.  An average not seen in more than a decade.  And here was Ted, right on the cusp.  His coach gave him the option to sit out the final day to protect .400, but that wasn’t really Williams’ style.

So Ted Williams took the risk and played on September 28th, which happened to be a double-header for the Red Sox.  And all he did was go 6-for-8, finishing the season with a .406 batting average.  And Ted did more than hit for average, he hit 37 homeruns, drove in 120 runs, and walked an astounding 147 times…at the tender age of 22.  But that year’s MVP award went to Dimaggio, as his 56-game hitting streak won the day for the voters.

The magic plateau of .400 has been approached a handful of times since ’41 (George Brett’s .390 in 1980, Rod Carew’s .388 in 1977, and, more recently, Tony Gwynn’s .394 average in the strike-killed 1994 season), but it hasn’t been eclipsed.  It’s hard to say whether it will ever be reached again.  Baseball’s expansion in the 90’s has allowed gobs of mediocre pitching in both leagues to fatten averages and statistics of hitters who, 25 years ago, would not likely have been playing.  Still, “2 hits per 5 ab’s” is (obviously) nearly impossible to maintain through a 162-game schedule.

Ted Williams said that he would like someone else to hit .400, just so people would stop bothering him about it.  But Ted’s accomplishment on this day in 1941 is so special, and the game of baseball has changed so much in nearly 70 years.  I just can’t see anyone duplicating Williams’ feat any time soon.  And so Williams must remain alone on the batting-average pinnacle…for the time being.

Recommended Reading: The Science of Hitting – How to hit, from the man himself.

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On September 27, 1940, the Axis Powers were officially created when Germany, Japan, and Italy signed the Tripartite Pact in Berlin.  Set to last for 10 years, the Pact contained several articles.  First, Japan recognized that Germany and Italy were in charge of things in Europe, while Germany and Italy submitted to Japan in East Asia and the Pacific.  It also stated that each country was allowed to acquire the territory needed to maintain peace (sounds strange, right?), and that each member should economically, politically, and militarily support the acquisition efforts of the others. 

The Tripartite Pact also addressed the Soviet Union…with good reason.  If you recall, Germany and Japan had already signed the Anti-Comintern Pact back in 1936.  Simply put, the two countries agreed that Communism was evil and that neither country would enter into any kind of treaty with the Communist Soviet Union.  Fast-forward to 1939.  Germany, in setting up Poland for occupation, signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact with Russia, which caused some consternation in Japan, who was involved in on-again, off-again territorial disputes with the Soviets and wanted to focus more on deteriorating relations with the United States.

As a result, the Tripartite Pact contained language stating that this Pact in no way affected any member’s current relationship with Russia.  So, Japan and Russia could stay mad at each other, and Russia and Germany could be friends (for the time being), and Japan wouldn’t have to be mad at Germany…one of those high-school-girls-type alliances if ever there was one.

Over the course of next several years, other countries would join the Pact.  Today’s History Lesson has already directly addressed two of those:  Bulgaria and Yugoslavia.  Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia would be added in November, and Croatia would join in 1941.

Recommended Reading: Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed the World, 1940-1941

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It was almost too unbelievable to fathom.  Wait, it was too unbelievable to fathom.  He stared at his computer screen in shock and horror amid the alarms sounding from the computer system in front of him.  After all these years of speculation, pontification, bluster, and angry back-and-forth rhetoric, it was happening.  The beginning of the end.  Armageddon.  Worldwide cataclysm.  Or was it?

As the clock passed the midnight hour of September 26, 1983, Stanislav Petrov was in the middle of yet another mundane night shift, monitoring his computers.  Holding the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, the computers he watched were in a bunker…near Moscow…in the Soviet Union.  And those computers listened to Soviet satellites that were watching for the telltale ignition plumes that indicated missile launches from the United States or from her ballistic missile submarines.

Well, after years of nothing, the warning bells pealed.  A launch from the U.S. had been detected, and Petrov probably jumped at the sound.  With his mind racing, Petrov focused on the basics:  Soviet doctrine.  It taught that a U.S. attack would not be a “decapitation” strike with a solitary missile, but an all-out attack with many.  And frankly, the computer system had been a little “glitchy” lately.  So the detection of a single missile could only be a computer-processing error.  Whew!!!

But then things got ugly quickly.  Another missile launch was detected.  Then another.  Then a fourth.  And a fifth!!  Now what to do?!?  The Soviets were still bearing the incredible sting of world condemnation for shooting down that Korean jet just 3 weeks prior.  Was that the final straw for the West?!?  The “Start” button in front of Petrov was flashing, and pushing it would initiate the process of a massive Soviet nuclear response.  But still, Petrov wasn’t sure.  Was it a horrible computer failure, or was it the real thing?  Waiting for Soviet radar to detect the incoming missiles would be to wait too long.

It was a calm Sunday evening in the United States, and in a Soviet bunker, complete and utter destruction was a finger-push away.  Stanislav Petrov’s gut told him it was a mistake, even though all available evidence was to the contrary.  So Petrov, going against his orders, did nothing and waited for the ground to begin rumbling, the searing heat, and inevitable death…which never came.

Petrov’s superiors didn’t expressly punish Petrov for disobeying doctrine, but neither did they reward him, as doing so would have shown the faults in the Soviet detection systems, bringing certain consequences on themselves.  Still, Petrov’s career was largely over and he would be retired in short order.  It wouldn’t be until the fall of the Soviet Union and the publication of his superiors’ memoirs that Stanislav’s deeds would become known…to a very appreciative world.

NOTE: I thought I’d try a different look to the site…hope you like it.  A special thanks to my co-worker Beth for her outstanding work on the new graphic.  I think it’s terrific!!

Recommended Reading: Stanislav Petrov Averts a Worldwide Nuclear War – Not wanting to use photos without permission, go to this site for even more details…and pictures of Petrov.

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There were several other topics I was planning to do for today (Devil’s Tower or maybe the creation of the Attorney General’s office),  but they’ll just have to wait.  I decided to put them aside when I saw that Theodor Geisel had passed away on September 24, 1991.   Geisel’s name probably means little to you, though the teaster photo likely gives the gig away.  But Geisel’s middle name is legendary.  Its mention brings instant recognition, takes many of us back to our childhoods, and conjures up some of our earliest memories.  That name is…Seuss.

Yep, Geisel is none other than the immortal Dr. Seuss.  And like my other favorite doctor, Dr. Science, Seuss wasn’t a real doctor, though his intentions were to study for a doctorate of Philosophy.  But advanced degree or no, Seuss has provided children (and not a few adults) with some of the most entertaining books ever.

It’s hard to really describe a Seuss book, simply because they’re so completely different from any other children’s book.  Most books tell a simple story, so there’s a plot, and flow, and at least a little character development.  And some of Seuss’ books do that a little…I’m thinking of How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (one of Seuss’ first books).  They’re books that move toward an end.  But many others simply have no real point at all.  They bob and weave from idea to idea and from topic to topic in a most precarious way.  Plot?  Forget about it.  Characters?  Who cares, they’re creatures that don’t even exist anyway.

But in a way, those are the perfect books for children.  They’re silly, they have creatures with fantastic names, they’re beautifully illustrated, and they defy any kind of categorization…except as “classics for children”.

Seuss wrote dozens of books in his lifetime, many of them enormously popular.  You’ve probably read some of them (or at least looked at the dazzling artwork).  The Cat in the Hat is, quite possibly, the most popular children’s book of all time.  If it isn’t, Green Eggs and Ham wouldn’t be far from the top.  The 500 Hats… was a favorite of mine (I always loved it when, after about 400 hats or so, the feathers started appearing), I’ve read Hop on Pop, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, Mr. Brown Can Moo!  Can You?, and If I Ran the Circus.

But my favorite Dr. Seuss book is, without question, How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  The story is so simple, the rhyming is so clever, and as a children’s tale, it takes a light-hearted approach to an important lesson that every child needs to know:  you don’t have to have lots of stuff (or even anything at all) to be happy.

Of course, Boris Karloff’s narration of the Grinch cartoon is superb, and I watch the video version every single year around Christmas (“Why, the Grinch even took the last can of Who-hash!“)…my wife bought me the DVD.

So, while Theodor Geisel/Dr. Seuss left us on this day, he left us with an astounding collection of terrific books that children will enjoy for generations to come.

Recommended Reading: How the Grinch Stole Christmas – Read this Dr. Seuss classic.  It might take you 15 minutes or so.

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Yep, it’s Tommy Lasorda’s birthday.  In baseball circles, his name is legendary and, as the long-time coach of the Los Angeles Dodgers, he compiled a list of awards and achievements that certifies his status.

Born on September 22, 1927, Tommy had a fairly successful minor league career, but his stint as a pitcher at the top level was short and pretty unmemorable, with just a handful of appearances in the mid-50’s and no victories.  But once his playing days were over, Lasorda kind of hit his prime, one that would last 30+ years.  Once again, he enjoyed tremendous success in the Dodgers’ minor-league organization, only this time as a coach.  A string of championships in the late 60’s and early 70’s got him noticed and, by 1973, he was a coach aside the legendary Walter Alston.

When Alston retired after the 1976 season, Lasorda took over…and the rest is baseball history.  1,599 wins, two World Series championships (over the Yankees in 1981 and the Kirk Gibson-inspired 1988 win over the A’s), numerous pennants, and Division championships all give evidence to his greatness as a manager.

But even more than that, the thing I remember so clearly are the number of young players that came up and flourished in his dugouts.  It seemed that every year during the 80’s and 90’s, the Dodgers always, always, always had a Rookie-of-the-Year candidate.  Guys like Fernando Valenzuela, Steve Sax, Eric Karros, and certain-Hall-of-Famer Mike Piazza displayed not only the Dodger organization’s ability to find quality talent, but also Lasorda’s penchant for plugging them in at just the perfect time and allowing them to blossom.

Tommy retired from coaching during the 1996 season, nearly 20 years after taking the helm, and his tremendous success (he was named Manager-of-the-Year 5 times by one group or another) gained him entrance to baseball’s Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.  He continues to work for the Dodgers, even at 81, and he remains an important ambassador for the sport.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the one thing for which I remember Tommy Lasorda the most:  The Baseball Bunch.  A really cheesy baseball show for kids that ran on Saturday mornings for a couple years back in the 80’s, The Baseball Bunch starred Johnny Bench, (I think) the San Diego Chicken, and Lasorda as the mystical, magical Dugout Wizard, who told kids, “The Umpire is ALWAYS right.”

Uh-huh…

Happy Birthday, Tommy Lasorda!!

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It started simply enough, but has become a worldwide sensation.  It was meant to be a story for the author’s son, but millions upon millions of adults have embraced it.  It’s popularity led the publishers to ask for a sequel, and what resulted was one of the most important works of fiction ever created.  But such was the power in the phrase – “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” – written on a scrap of paper, that could so affect literary history.

The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien’s story of Bilbo Baggins, has all the elements that a child (and maybe a grown-up) requires in an adventure story.  There are strange races of people (hobbits, elves, dwarves, trolls, and goblins), there is a wizard, and mountains, and secret doors, and maps, a key, and a magic ring.

But above all else, there is a quest.  Bilbo Baggins is thrust into the middle of an adventure he desperately wants to avoid.  And throughout the pages of the book, we watch as Bilbo is transformed from a sort of bumbling fraidy-cat to the leader of an expedition, as the adventures he and the dwarves encounter serve to refine our hero.  So by story’s end, Mr. Baggins is no longer the homebody hobbit who passes out at the mere mention of death, but a bold adventurer who faces his fears and is willing to walk into the dragon’s den.

I think my first exposure to Tolkien was watching the Rankin-Bass cartoon production of The Hobbit back when I was 12…maybe 13 years old.  It’s a decent rendition, though I think Glenn Yarborough’s singing is atrocious.  My first reading of the book was not long after.  I read it every year, usually in August, and my count of readings now approaches 30.  But I still love the tale.

A couple of interesting things: my uncle built an earth home years ago, and his mailbox was custom-painted with “Middle Earth” on it.  My younger brother proposed to his wife while reading the chapter “Riddles in the Dark” to her.  He got to the Bilbo’s question (“What have I got in my pocket?”) and, well, you know…

The greatest value “The Hobbit” has is that its popularity made the publication of The Lord of the Rings a reality.  And while the 3-volume sequel required that Tolkien alter certain aspects of Bilbo’s story, it still remains the same classic adventure story today that it was when those first 1,500 books rolled off the presses on September 21, 1937 (the original cover is shown above).  And if you can find one of those original copies…

Recommended Reading:  The Hobbit – I just finished what I think is my 28th or 29th reading last month, so pick up a copy and go for it!

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