Jewish heroes of the Civil War

Above: Confederates capture a Union battery during the Battle of Glendale

ON THIS DATE in 1862, seventeen-year-old drummer Benjamin Levy of the 1st New York Infantry snatched a rifle from an ill Union soldier and joined the fight at the Civil War Battle of Glendale in Virginia. Under heavy fire, he “carried the colors and saved them from capture,” according to his Medal of Honor citation. Levy has been credited as the first Jewish American to be cited for and later receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, America’s highest military decoration.

Six other Jewish soldiers would receive the Medal of Honor for Civil War valor: David Orbansky (Shiloh and Vicksburg); Henry Heller (Chancellorsville); Leopold Karpeles (Battle of the Wilderness); Abraham Cohn (Battle of the Wilderness and Battle of the Crater); Isaac Gause (Berryville, Virginia); and Abraham Greenawalt (Franklin, Tennessee).

“Genius and gentility”

1958_vm-final_sverige-brasilien“HIS NICKNAME MEANS nothing in any language but evokes images of genius and gentility in them all,” wrote Hank Hersch of Sports Illustrated in 1999. On this date in 1958, the seventeen-year-old soccer virtuoso known as Pelé scored two goals as Brazil defeated Sweden 5-2 for the first of the nation’s five World Cup championships.

The youngest player in the 1958 World Cup, Pele´ would be declared a national treasure by Brazil’s president in 1961. His world popularity became so profound that the two sides in the Nigeria-Biafra war agreed to a cease-fire when he came to Africa in 1968. In soccer, where 400 career goals is considered a terrific feat, Pelé scored 1,280, then came out of retirement in 1975 to play for the New York Cosmos, where his presence brought big crowds to the North American Soccer League.

Many insist that Pele, not Michael Jordan or Muhammad Ali, is the greatest world athlete of all time.

“The California Girl”

lilsmithONE DAY in 1886, Buffalo Bill Cody got a glimpse of a rifle-shooting girl he just had to have for his traveling show. The daughter of a shooting-gallery owner, fifteen-year-old Lillian Smith “made my own efforts (with a weapon) seem like the attempts of a novice,” said Cody, whose Wild West Show had made himself and his headlining sharpshooter, Annie Oakley, “America’s first superstars,” according to Western writer Larry McMurtry.

Cody’s touring show, which he’d debuted in 1883, included flamboyant horseback riding and crack shooting demonstrations by Oakley and others. Debuting with the show on June 28, 1886, Smith initially entertained crowds between main acts before earning a spot in the regular lineup. Billed as “The California Girl” and the “Champion Rifle Shot of the World,” Smith’s aim was so true that Cody offered $100,000 to anyone who could outshoot her in public.

Smith presented a flashier (some would say trashier) image than Oakley, who despised her rival. The younger woman’s “mere presence on the lot irritated Annie to an extreme,” McMurtry wrote in 2005’s The Colonel and Little Missie. Smith’s wardrobe was a particular irritation to the conservative Oakley. During a shooting demonstration at the Wimbledon sporting club in London, Smith shocked the British onlookers by wearing “a dress that sported a vivid yellow sash, and a plug hat the likes of which had never been seen in this august club before,” McMurtry wrote. Smith also spoke coarsely, saying such things as “Swing de apple dere, young fellers, an’ let me bust his skins.”

Smith never matched Oakley’s popularity and quit the show in 1889. In 1902, the women sharpshooters competed at a shooting contest in Kansas City, with Oakley winning. Almost unrecognizable, Smith had darkened her skin and adopted the stage name “Princess Wenona, the Indian Girl Shot.”

She struck ’em out. But was it all a show?

image047ONE OF THE MOST CHARMING old-time baseball tales concerns a seventeen-year-old girl pitcher striking out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in a 1931 exhibition game in Chattanooga, Tennessee. There are at least three children’s books that celebrate Jackie Mitchell’s unlikely pitching feat, including The Girl Who Struck Out Babe Ruth (2000). A headline on a story states, “Today in Herstory: Jackie Mitchell Strikes Out Baseball’s Greats,” and treats the double strikeouts as a straightforward case of a distaff pitcher outdueling the two best hitters in baseball.

Jackie Mitchell did strike out Ruth and Gehrig on April 2, 1931. The question is, did the two Yankees whiff on purpose?

Jackie Mitchell

Jackie Mitchell

I can hear the protests already. “Of course she did!” “No one strikes out intentionally!” “Men will never admit that a girl beat their heroes!”

I’d like to believe that Ruth and Gehrig were doing their best and Mitchell was just too good. It makes for a better story. It’s certainly possible that Mitchell’s lefty delivery and slow-moving pitches flummoxed the Yankee sluggers, who were used to hard-throwing big leaguers.

Baseball writers — granted, male baseball writers — reported that Ruth and Gehrig were just putting on a show for Mitchell’s hometown crowd. The Baltimore Sun wrote that Ruth “could have knocked the ball onto the outlying railroad tracks” but instead, “taking careful aim,” swung and missed twice. According to a 2013 Smithsonian story by Tony Horwitz, a grainy newsreel of Ruth’s strikeout shows the slugger flailing “wildly at the ball, and his fury at the called third strike looks theatrical.” But the blurry film makes it impossible to conclude anything about the quality of Mitchell’s pitching and earnestness of the two batters.

Major League Baseball historian John Thorn considers the strikeouts an act. “The whole thing was a jape, a jest, a Barnumesque prank,” he told The Smithsonian. “Jackie Mitchell striking out Ruth and Gehrig is a good story for children’s books, but it belongs in the pantheon with the Easter Bunny and Abner Doubleday ‘inventing’ baseball.'”

Hall of Fame research director Tim Miles, on the other hand, thinks the strikeouts may have been genuine. “Much of batting has to do with timing and familiarity with a pitcher, and everything about Jackie Mitchell was unfamiliar to Ruth and Gehrig,” he told The Smithsonian.

What do I think? Like I said, I wish Ruth and Gehrig were trying their best, but I have doubts about that. I think all those who write about “The Girl Who Struck Out Babe Ruth” should mention the possibility that it might have been a farce.

For more about the Mitchell strikeouts, check out this well-researched story in The Smithsonian:

1901: Picasso’s first major exhibit

Layout 1Above: Yo Picasso and The Absinthe Drinker, 1901

ON THIS DATE in 1901, nineteen-year-old Pablo Picasso presented the first major exhibition of his artwork at a gallery on Paris’ Rue Laffitte.

Although he would change styles many times, Picasso’s initial exhibit included works that amaze art lovers. Robert Pincus of Copley News Service wrote that by 1901 Picasso “had created drawings, paintings and sculptures that would earn him an enduring place in art history, even if he had died then and there.”

Late in 1901, Picasso began his Blue Period, followed by the Rose Period in 1905. In 1908, he and Georges Braque forged a partnership that would create cubism, an abstract style in which natural forms are broken up into geometric shapes.

Far from modest, Picasso signed some of his earliest paintings “Yo el rey,” meaning “I, the king.” He created more than 20,000 works in more than 75 years.

We roamed the same high school halls

I ATTENDED AN OREGON high school in the late 1970s with virtually no diversity. The Medford Senior High nickname, “Black Tornado,” couldn’t have been more ironic considering that white kids comprised 99 percent of the student body.

Our most famous alumni reflect this diversity deficit. A Wikipedia page lists three obscure entertainers among my old school’s “notable alumni,” and a bunch of jocks, including high jumper Dick Fosbury.

Lots of high schools specialize in the kind of alumni they turn out. Brockton High in Massachusetts, for instance, gave us boxers Rocky Marciano and Marvin Hagler. Washington-Lee in Virginia produced Oscar-winning actresses Shirley MacLaine (class of ’52) and Sandra Bullock (class of ’82).

While there’s nothing wrong with that, I appreciate schools that nurtured drastically different individuals. Like …

Layout 1Barbara Walters (class of ’47) + Luther Campbell (class of ’79).
• Can you image these two making a reunion entrance together? Walters is a celebrity newswoman known for mispronouncing her r-sounds. Campbell is the former lead man of 2 Live Crew, a controversial late-’80s hip-hop group famous (or infamous) for the song, “Me So Horny.”
Layout 12. CENTRAL HIGH 
Larry Fine (class of ’20) + Noam Chomsky (class of ’45).
• Chomsky is a left-wing linguist and intellectual. Fine was one of the Three Stooges.
Layout 13.  TOWSON HIGH
(Towson, Maryland)

Divine (class of ’63) + Michael Phelps (class of 2003).
• Divine was the large drag queen who appeared in a whole bunch of John Waters’ films. Phelps won 22 Olympic swimming medals.
Layout 14. TAFT HIGH  (Los Angeles)
Maureen McCormick (early ’70s) + Ice Cube (late ’80s).
• McCormick is known for portraying the wholesome, perky Marcia Brady on “The Brady Bunch.” Ice Cube is known as one of the founders of Gangsta Rap.
Layout 15.  CARDAZO SENIOR HIGH  (Washington, D.C.)
J. Edgar Hoover (class of ’13 when it was known as Central High) + Marvin Gaye (attended till ’55).
• Hoover was the uptight head of the FBI who happened to be gay. Gaye was a Motown legend who celebrated sex in songs like “Let’s Get it On.”
(Portland, Oregon)

Linus Pauling (class of ’18) + Jack Ely (class of ’62).
• Pauling was the first person to win two undivided Nobel prizes; Ely sang lead vocals for the Kingsmen on the 1963 trash-rock classic, “Louie Louie.”
(Groton, Massachusetts)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (class of 1900) + Fred Gwynne (class of ’44).
• Roosevelt was the 33rd and only four-term president of the United States. Gwynne played Herman Munster on “The Munsters” from 1964 to ’66.
Layout 18. GREAT NECK NORTH HIGH  (Great Neck, New York)
Andy Kaufman (class of ’67) + Sarah Hughes (class of 2003).
• Kaufman was a performance artist known for (among other things) wrestling women. Hughes won a gold medal in figure skating during the 2002 Winter Olympics.
Layout 19. GLENOAK HIGH (Canton, Ohio)
Dan Dierdorf (class of ’67) + Marilyn Manson (class of ’87).
• Dierdof is a Hall of Fame football player and a longtime NFL broadcaster. Manson (real name: Brian Hugh Warner) is a controversial recording artist who cut an album called Antichrist Superstar.
(Pasadena, California)

George S. Patton (class of 1903) + Eddie Van Halen (class of ’73).
• Patton was World War II Army general known as “Old Blood and Guts.” Van Halen is the legendary lead guitarist of Van Halen.

The spy and the general’s peas

880161ON THIS DATE in 1776, a thirteen-year-old innkeeper’s daughter named Phoebe Fraunces saved the life of General George Washington — maybe. Many sources, including a 1980 People magazine article, have reported that Fraunces discovered a plot to assassinate Washington during the early days of the Revolutionary War by poisoning the general’s peas. She informed Washington of the tainted veggies, he tossed them out the window, and chickens pecking at the peas fell dead.

A Thomas Hickey was hanged for treason in 1776, but no Phoebe Fraunces can be found in the historical record — none of innkeeper Samuel Fraunces’s five daughters had that name. Some say she was an African American slave, but that, too, has never been confirmed.