Saturday, 29 March 2014

The Dambuster Raid…Part One

Wing Commander Guy Gibson (United Kingdom Public Domain)
On 21 March 1943, well over 100 officers and NCOs from 21 bomber crews jammed the briefing room at Scampton, Lincolnshire, a Royal Air Force base 150 miles north of London to find out what the heck all the excitement was about. So far, they were known simply as Squadron X. They hailed from every corner of the Commonwealth, except for one Brooklyn-born American officer. They were all veterans, hardened by aerial battle--pilots, navigators, bomb-aimers, wireless-operators, gunners and flight-engineers. Nearly all were in their mid-20s or younger. They were handpicked, the cream of the crop, the best of RAF Bomber Command. Almost like a World War II version of Special Ops. Most crews had already completed a full combat tour of 30 operations over German-held territory. Some had even defied the odds by finishing 2 tours. They all had one thing in common--none of them volunteered to be there that morning. Glancing around, one of the Canadian gunners in the group commented, “This looks like an NHL {National Hockey League} All-Star team.”

At 0930, a hush fell over the crowd as the commanding officer, Wing Commander Guy Gibson, a handsome, muscular  Englishman entered the room . He was already a decorated legend in the RAF with 3 tours in bombers and one in fighters, a man who had beaten the odds and then some. To be exact, he had seen 73 bombing operations;  and 99 night-fighter ones, where he had 4 enemy kills to his credit. He had already been awarded a DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross) and a DSO (Distinguished Service Order) and a Bar.

“You’re here to do a special job,” Gibson began. “You’re a crack squadron. You’re here to carry out  a raid on Germany which, I am told, will have startling results. What the target is I can’t tell you. Nor can I tell you where it is. All I can tell you is you will have to practice low flying all day and all night until you can do it with your eyes shut.”  Gibson went on to say that security was vital and under no circumstances were they to talk to anybody off the base about what they were doing. Then he dismissed them.

One of these brave young men was a relative of mine…Sergeant  Steve Oancia, Canadian born and raised near Stonehenge, Saskatchewan. His father and my grandfather were first cousins, farming only three miles from each other—a sheer stone throw on the prairies. Steve’s birth-name was Stefan. His parents were Romanian descent. At 18, Steve enlisted with the RCAF two years before and was now a bomb-aimer with the crew of Flight Sergeant Ken Brown, a fellow prairie boy from Moose Jaw, only 70 miles from Stonehenge.

The targets would be 3 main hydro-electrical dams feeding the industrialized Ruhr Valley--the Mohne, the Eder and the Sorpe. The Eder was the largest of the three, with a water capacity of 200 million tons. In all, 300 million tons for the 3 combined. The operation was based on an invention by British aeronautical engineer Barnes Wallis codenamed Upkeep, named after his powerful skipping bomb so gigantic in size that each aircraft could carry only one. Resembling a depth charge or a huge oil drum and weighing 9,500 pounds, each bomb held 6,500 pounds of RDX high explosive. It would be fitted under the fuselage of an Avro Lancaster 4-engined bomber, and carried by two V-shaped legs with a mechanism that spun the bomb backwards at 500 RPM by way of a belt drive connected to a motor inside the fuselage. Once Upkeep was released towards a dam from upriver, the backspin was expected to allow the bomb to skip forward and over the torpedo nets, then to hold the bomb against the wall of the dam as it sank. A depth-activated fuse would set off the explosion near the base of the dam, causing the wall to be breached. All this would have to be done at night under a full moon and at an altitude of 150 feet (later changed to 60 feet upon more testing), 425 yards from the dam, in the airspeed range of 230-240 MPH. The best time for the strike would be the middle of May, a full-moon period, when the water levels were at its highest as a result of winter runoff and spring rains.

Over the next several weeks, the intense day-night training began, closely supervised by Gibson, one of the few on the base who knew the true targets ahead of time. In order to simulate nighttime flying in daylight hours, light-blue screens were placed over the aircraft windows, and the crews donned yellow glasses. Low-level flying was no longer a no-no. It was a must. Like giddy school boys, the airmen were given the green light to perfect normally-forbidden low-flying practices. In Britain, no area between Cornwall and Hebrides was safe from Squadron X. The crews flew under bridges, skimmed wheat fields, brushed treetops, blew soot from chimneys, and scattered herds of cattle and sheep, all in the name of practice makes perfect. Any complaints from outraged civilian--and there were many--were totally ignored.

Then major problems presented themselves. After plenty of practice, the height of 150 feet over the water was too difficult to judge with the Lancaster instruments. So, a technician suggested to Gibson placing 2 spotlights on the bomber. One in the nose, pointing straight down, the other just forward from the tail, pointing at an angle towards the first light and converging with it to form a figure-eight on the water at the proper 150 feet. Also, during Upkeep bomb tests over England’s south shore, with Wallis looking on, the casings were breaking apart once they hit the water. With 2 weeks to go before the attack, his suggestion now was for the pilots to head towards the targets at 60 feet! Gibson’s first reaction was, “If 150 feet was too low, 60 feet was very low. At that height you would only have to hiccough and you’d be in the drink.”

The crews then made their tests at these scary heights and found they could actually do it. Other changes were roller maps for the navigators instead of cumbersome flip charts, and a hand-held bombsight--a small, wooden, triangle-shaped board with 2 nails on each end and a peephole in one corner. From aerial photos, RAF intelligence determined that the flak towers on the hydro dams were 600 feet apart. Technicians constructed the board so that when the bomb-aimer looked through the hole, he would line up the towers with the nails. At this point, the bomber was then at the required 425 feet from the wall in which to drop the bomb.

Into the first week of May, Gibson could see that his squadron was a little uptight, so he issued 3-day passes for his overtaxed aircrews, with orders to keep their mouths shut. Two days before take-off, Gibson briefed the pilots, navigators, bomb-aimers and flight-engineers of Squadron X (now named 617 Squadron) on their targets. The raid had a codename too, “Operation Chastise.” The shocked men were shown detailed scale models of the Sorpe, the Mohne, and the Eder down to exact flak positions and surrounding terrain. They all realized it would be one tough job. The next evening, Gibson briefed the gunners and wireless-operators. The next afternoon, Allied reconnaissance aircraft reported that the water in the dams was 4 feet from the top of the 3 targeted dams. The raid was on. At 9 PM, 16 May, the 7-man crews boarded 19 Lancaster bombers, each with an all-up weight of 63,000 pounds.

Formation Two took off first because they had the greatest distance to cover. These were 5 aircraft belonging to Flight Lieutenant Joe McCarthy (the American from Brooklyn), Sergeant Vernon Byers, Flight Lieutenant Norman Barlow, Pilot Officer Geoff Rice and Flight Lieutenant Les Munro. Their job was to fly east across the North Sea, then head south to attack the Sorpe Dam from the west. But the formation got off to a late start when Joe McCarthy discovered an oil leak in his bomber while it was on the tarmac. The rest left without him, while he switched to a spare aircraft, leaving him 20 minutes behind the group he was supposed to be leading.

Gibson’s Formation One consisted of 9 aircraft in 3 waves taking a more direct route to the Mohne. They were to breach it, then head to the Eder. In the cockpits were Pilot Officer Les Knight, Squadron Leader Melvin “Dinghy” Young, Squadron Leader Henry Maudslay, and Flight Lieutenants John Hopgood, Harold “Mickey” Martin, David Shannon, Bill Astell, and David Maltby. Taking off 2 hours after Formation Two was the reserve group of Formation Three, these 5 aircraft commanded by Pilot Officers Warner Ottley and Lewis Burpee, and Flight Sergeants Bill Townsend, Cyril Anderson and Ken Brown, with my relative aboard.

Everything didn’t go as planned, with Formation Two getting the worst of it. Upon reaching the coast at low level, Munro’s aircraft was hit by German flak badly enough to sever the intercom and radio lines. He had to turn back to base. The crews of Barlow and Byers were shot down near the same spot. Over the Zuider Zee on the Dutch coast, Rice slipped his bomber too low and struck water, tearing a hole in the fuselage. He too had to turn back. This left only McCarthy from the original 5 to head for the Sorpe.

Over the Dutch countryside, Gibson, Martin, and Hopgood flew tightly together, dodging trees, houses, and telephone wires. In the second group of Formation Two, Bill Astell’s  crew missed their turning point and were never heard from again. Now 5 planes were gone and they still hadn’t reached any target yet. The remaining 8 in the Gibson formation reached the Mohne just as the moon was at its brightest, illuminating a set of hills ahead and the mirror-like Mohne Lake leading up to the huge dam. The crews looked on in awe at the size of the target they had been trained to destroy. Suddenly, German flak (which RAF airmen called ack-ack) from as many as 10 guns opened up on the Lancasters. Gibson began to circle the target with Hopgood and Martin, as he contacted the other aircraft in his formation. Except for Astell, the others answered and flew into view. Over the radio, Gibson let the other 7 aircraft know that he was going in first.

“Well, boys, I suppose we had better start the ball rolling,” he said calmly to his crew over the intercom. 

The Mohne Dam breached, 1943 (United Kingdom Public Domain)

Gibson turned his aircraft, G-George, around the eastern part of the massive lake, while his bomb-aimer Fred “Spam” Spafford hit the switch to start the motor spinning the bomb at 500 RPM. Edging towards the surface at 240 miles per hour, Gibson eased the Lancaster down, then carefully began to level off over the smooth black sheet of mirroring water. The navigator flicked the 2 spotlights on and watched for the figure-eight to appear on the water surface below. Gibson held the bomber steady, aiming for the center point of the towers to the west, seemingly oblivious to the fiery balls of ack-ack closing in on him from the other side of the lake. His front gunner fired back, while Spafford peered through the peephole of the makeshift, hand-held aiming device, waiting for the towers to line up on the nails. When they did, he dropped the bombed. Gibson roared the bomber over the wall of the dam and down the valley, then banked to take a look along with his crew. The bomb exploded and a massive spire of water hung in the air at the base of the wall. But when the spray subsided, the dam still held.

John Hopgood made the second run on the Mohne. But by now the German flak gunners had found the range and made several hits. Hopgood’s wing began to burn before he reached the wall. His bomb-aimer, presumed injured, dropped the bomb on the powerhouse on the other side of the wall. The other aircraft could see Hopgood climbing for the sky, probably to give his crew time to bail out. Moments later, a bright flash lit up the night. A wing separated and the Lancaster disintegrated into many flaming pieces 3 miles from the dam. Then the powerhouse blew up, making another fiery explosion in the darkness. Gibson waited for the billowing smoke to ease, then called on Mickey Martin, followed by Dinghy Young to drop their bombs. Both runs were perfect, but the wall still stood after the bombs were dropped. Then David Maltby was called upon by Gibson, and his bomb-aimer let the bomb go on target. At first, nothing. Then several radios from the other bombers came to life. Pilots hooted and hollered. Below a great flow of foaming water emerged from an enormous, 100-yard-long hole in the wall.

Gibson’s excited wireless-operator sent a signal back to their English base at Scampton that their first objective had been destroyed. Gibson later recounted in his excellent autobiography, Enemy Coast Ahead, “The whole valley was beginning to fill with fog from the steam of the gushing water, and down in the valley we saw cars speeding along the roads in front of this great wave of water, which was chasing them and going faster than they could hope to go…The floods raced on, carrying everything with them as they went--viaducts, railways, bridges and everything that stood in their path. Three miles beyond the dam the remains of Hoppy’s aircraft were still burning gently, a dull red glow on the ground. Hoppy had been avenged.”

Gibson then ordered Martin and Maltby to set course for Scampton, while he with the remainder of Formation One flew east to the Eder. The night was far from over…

Part Two--next week                         

Saturday, 22 March 2014

A Star Is Born In The Motor City

1952 Bowman baseball card  of George Kell,
Detroit Tigers (United States Public Domain)
Baseball trades today aren’t such a big hoopla anymore, not with multi-year deals, free agency, and arbitration getting in the way. But there was time a few decades ago…

In the past, most of the trades were yawners. A few were blockbusters, some innocent one-for-one and others involving several non-important players. Some gave neither side a short-term nor a long-term advantage. Other trades, however, were classified as lopsided. For instance, Roger Maris to the Yankees, Lou Brock to the Cardinals, and Joe Morgan to the Reds. But the importance of one particular player transaction after World War II seems to have slipped by baseball fans almost unnoticed. As a result of this trade, a young 5-foot-9, 175-pound infielder born and raised in Swifton, Arkansas was well on his way to earning a shiny, personalized plaque in Cooperstown…

By 1946, the war had been over for several months and the servicemen had returned from the battle fronts. Stars such as Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller, and Ted Williams, who were ready to pick up where they had left off. In Detroit, the Tigers were keeping their eyes on 23-year-old George Kell, a slick-fielding, “hot corner” infielder hitting near .300.

For any trade to materialize, of course, a team must have a need. Legendary Philadelphia A’s owner Connie Mack desperately wanted an outfielder who could hit. On the other hand, the Tigers were faced with having to replace their aging third-baseman, 40-year-old Pinky Higgins. The Tigers offered the A’s any outfielder except Dick Wakefield for Kell. The A’s fancied Barney McCosky, still young at 28, a proven veteran, and a solid linedrive hitter, who had returned home after 3 years in the US Navy. Born in Coal Run, Pennsylvania, McCosky grew up in Detroit in the midst of the Great Depression and was signed by the Tigers in 1936 right out of high school at 18. Defensively, he had excellent outfield range and an accurate arm. In three out of his 4 full seasons with Detroit, he had hit over .300, seldom striking out. He also had hit an impressive .304 in the 7-game 1940 World Series lost to the Cincinnati Reds. But McCosky was off to a bad start in the first 2 months of 1946, hitting under .200.

On 18 May 1946, Kell was heading to his hotel room while the A’s were on a road trip in Detroit. “I had just finished breakfast,” Kell recalled for me. “I was on the elevator. Anyway, Connie Mack got on with me. He asked me to go up to his room and there he told me that I had been traded to Detroit. I was shocked. I told Mr Mack that I liked Philadelphia and wanted to stay with the A’s. He told me the deal was made and that’s the way things were done. He said he had an overabundance of infielders, and that he needed an outfielder real bad and that McCosky was one of the best in the league. He also said Detroit wanted me and no one else.

“So, we didn’t play that day,” Kell went on. “The A’s were leaving town that night. I went to the ballpark [Detroit’s Briggs Stadium} and cleaned out my locker. Barney did the same thing by cleaning out his. We just swapped lockers, uniforms and everything. Right there. The next day Boston came into Detroit and I played my first time as a Tiger, a double header against the Red Sox. I didn’t even have to compete for the third-base job because that same day the Tigers sold Pinky Higgins to Boston. The job was mine.”

McCosky had been a favorite in Detroit and at first the Tiger fans were disturbed over losing him. He was one of the nicest guys in the game, popular with his teammates and the fans. For the most part, Kell was an unproven player with potential only. This was the environment the young infielder was thrust into. But he didn’t let the negative talk about him affect his play or attitude. “I was a young kid at the time. I had a lot of confidence in myself,” Kell said. “I didn’t let the trade get to me. I just wanted to play ball.”

1951 Bowman baseball card of Barney McCosky,
Philadelphia Athletics (United States Public Domain)
Kell finished 1946 with a .322 average, and for the next five full seasons as a Tiger (1947-1951) he quickly proved himself by hitting over .300, including a league-leading .343 in 1949, beating out superstar Ted Williams by the slim margin of less than one percentage point. He also set a record for the fewest strikeouts (13) for a batting champ, an achievement that still stands. In 1950, he followed up with a .340 average (second best in the AL), with 3 league-leading stat--218 hits, 56 doubles and 641 at-bats. On 2 June, he hit for the cycle and he helped the team to a 95-win second place finish, 3 games behind the Yankees. Pleased with Kell’s play, Detroit manager Red Rolfe said, “He’s a seven-day-a-week ballplayer.”

In 1951, his last full year in Detroit, Kell led the AL with 36 doubles and 191 hits, while hitting .319, third best in the league. In addition, because of his excellent defensive abilities at the hot corner, Kell was named an American League All-Star third-baseman every one of his 5 full seasons in Detroit. Two months into 1952, Kell was traded to the Boston Red Sox in a 9-man deal. Good thing for Kell because the Tigers finished dead last that fall with a measly 50 wins. Kell remained with the Red Sox until the White Sox acquired him in mid-season 1954, before they dealt him to Baltimore part-way through 1956. All the time, Kell continued to play hard until his retirement in 1957 with the Orioles. He then turned his hot corner position over to a young Brooks Robinson, who became what some consider as the best third baseman in major league history.

McCosky went on to belt .318 in 1946, then .328 and .326 in his first 2 full seasons in Philly. He was never the same after that, sustaining a back injury in mid-1948 that caused him to miss the entire 1949 season due to spinal fusion surgery. The modest and likeable McCosky bowed out of the majors in 1953 after unsuccessful attempts at comebacks with Cincinnati and Cleveland. McCosky retired to the Detroit area where one of his jobs was a car salesman.

Sometimes that one break or that one switch to another team can mean all the difference to a ball player. In his case, Kell put in best by saying, “After the initial shock of being traded wore off, I was glad to be in Detroit. They were a better team, a contender. I was on my way. It was the best thing that happened to my career. And after a couple years the Tiger fans thought that it was one of the best trades the team ever made.”

According to Kell in his autobiography, Hello Everybody, I’m George Kell, published in 1998, he said that Barney McCosky told him on the day of the trade when the 2 met at Briggs Stadium, “You’ll be better off in Detroit. You’re going to love it here. I hate to leave because this is home. I’ve had good years here.”

 All told, Kell was a 10-time All-Star. He hit over .300 on 9 occasions, 8 of those consecutively. He led all third-basemen in fielding average 7 times and assists 4 times. The Hall of Fame voters shouldn’t have ignored him, but for some reason they did, and for a number of years. Why? Was he that under-rated? True, he wasn’t a power hitter. He hit only 78 lifetime homers and reached 100 RBIs in only one season. And he wasn’t on a pennant winner, only close in 1950. Nevertheless, he owned a lifetime .306 batting average and was one of the best fielding third-basemen in the game. At long last, in 1983 he was inducted into Cooperstown by the Veterans Committee. In his induction speech, the humble Kell said, “I have always said that George Kell has taken more from this great game of baseball than he can ever give back. And now I know, I am deeper in debt than ever before.”

After playing the game, Kell turned to baseball broadcasting, working there for 40 years, using a soft-spoken, southern-gentleman style. Most of the years were spent on radio and TV with the Tigers, but he also did work for the Baltimore Orioles and CBS in 1958, and helped call both the 1959 and 1962 National League playoffs for ABC and NBC, respectively.

After his retirement from broadcasting in 1996, Kell was severely injured in a car accident in 2004. But he was able to walk 6 months later with a cane. On 24 March 2009, he died in his sleep at the age of 86 in his hometown of Swifton, Arkansas.

Barney McCosky died in Venice, Florida on 6 September 1996 and was buried in Southfield, Michigan. He was 79.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

A Short History of Ragtime

When the term Ragtime is mentioned today and the origins of it are discussed, many people think of either the talented African-American composer-entertainer Scott Joplin…or the movie The Sting that featured his music…or his jumpy piano tune The Entertainer…or any combination of the three. But this unique music form did not start with Joplin…

Ernest Hogan, the Father of Ragtime,
1890s (United States Public Domain)

African-American Ernest Reuben Crowdus was born in Bowling Green, Kentucky in 1865. In his early teens, he performed in a traveling minstrel troupe called the Georgia Graduate as a dancer, musician and comedian. There, he changed his name to Ernest Hogan because Irish names were popular at that time in the business. A few years later, moving on to bigger and better things on his own, he was the highest paid vaudeville entertainer at $300 a week, a tidy sum at turn of the 20th century. In 1907, he was the first African-American to write, produce and star in a Broadway show, The Oyster Man, a spectacular musical-comedy set in 2 acts. He may also have been the father of a new musical genre, or at least brought it to national prominence. Kind of like saying that Henry Ford didn’t invent the automobile…he just beat everybody else in mass-producing it.

Anyway, Hogan supposedly put his own name in print to this genre, calling it Ragtime because it had a ragged rhythm. It was upbeat and cheerful piano-based tunes that made people want to dance. Ragtime had a mechanical sound to it, like a piano roll. According to one source, the music began in the African-American red-light districts of New Orleans and St Louis. One of the earlier dances associated with Ragtime was a variation of a Southern plantation dance called the Cakewalk. From there it went on the road to minstrel shows and vaudeville. And this was where Hogan picked up on it.

Hogan wrote and published 2 popular songs in the mid-1890s. The first one was La Pas Ma La in 1895 which was based on a dance he invented consisting of one walk forward and 3 steps backwards called the “pasmala.” The second one was All Coons Look Alike to Me in 1896. I know it sounds racial, but that’s what it was called. Honest. And it sold over a million copies in music sheet form which was where the money was, before records and turntables were introduced.

But the lyrics weren’t actually his. They were derived from a piano song he had heard in a Chicago parlor called All Pimps Look Alike to Me. He just…changed some of the words. That’s all. The song then fueled an avalanche of similar tunes by other entertainers and composers called “coon songs,” although these tunes had been around  on and off for about 10 years. Hogan had merely brought them to the forefront with his own song. Many African-Americans were soon appalled by the racial slurs Hogan and others were using. Due to these “coon songs,” Hogan’s name is bypassed by some historians as one of the early contributors to the Ragtime phenomenon. Other composers quickly made their names known in the Ragtime genre, three in particular simply known  as the “Big Three.”

Joseph Lamb was of Irish descent and was the only white person of the trio, and one of the few whites connected with the music form. Lamb composed both “light” and “heavy” rags. He attended St Jerome’s University in Berlin, (now Kitchener) Ontario just after the turn of the 20th century and while there had several of his earlier compositions (mostly waltzes) published by Harold H Sparks of Toronto.  Back in the States, in 1908, he met his hero, Scott Joplin, who introduced him to John Stillwell Stark a Sedalia, Missouri music publisher-promoter. With Stark, Lamb published his first rag, Sensation Rag, followed by others such notables as Ethiopia Rag, Excelsior Rag, Champagne Rag, and Cleopatra Rag. During the 1950s he was interviewed on a few occasions by musical historians who were surprised to discover he was white and…still living. In 1959, he performed some of his pieces before a crowd of 400 people at Toronto’s Club 76. He died the following year at the age of 72 in Brooklyn, New York.

James Scott published mostly out of the ragtime hub of Missouri, where he was born and raised. Living in Carthage, his first piano piece was published locally in 1903 by Charles Dumars, A Summer Breeze. Scott moved to St Louis where Scott Joplin introduced him to John Stillwell Stark who published Scott’s Frog Legs Rag five years later. His 2 other works of importance were Grace and Beauty and Climax Rag. Scott was a cousin to famed female blues recording singer Ada Brown who sang to Fats Waller’s piano work in the World War II movie Stormy Weather.

Last and most prominent of the Big Three, was none other than Scott Joplin, the most famous composer of the era. Joplin was born somewhere in Texas sometime between late 1867 and early 1868. No one knows when or where for sure. A self-taught pianist, he played in saloons and brothels throughout the American Mid-West. His first published work was Original Rags in 1897. At that time, he worked at the Maple Leaf Club in Sedalia, Missouri, which inspired his next work of art, Maple Leaf Rag. The local John Stilwell Stark paid Joplin $50 up front for what turned out to be the most famous ragtime tune ever, a one cent royalty for each piece of sheet music sold, making it the first time a composer received a royalty.    The residuals from the work provided Joplin with a modest income for the rest of his life. By 1909, over half a million copies were sold and millions more up to Joplin’s death in 1917 from complications due to syphilis, a disease he probably picked up in one of the brothels he performed in. Stark published almost 60 Joplin compositions (besides works of Joseph Lamb and James Scott), including The Entertainer in 1902 and Pine Apple Rag in 1908.
The talented and versatile Scott Joplin, 1903
(United States Public Domain)

In 1903, Joplin wrote an opera entitled A Guest of Honor, featuring a wide range of musical genres, not just Ragtime. It was the first opera ever written by an African-American, and he went on the road with it. While on tour in Springfield, Illinois, someone stole the box office receipts, shutting the opera down. Joplin’s personal belongings and the musical score for it were confiscated as non-payment. Hence, the score for A Guest of Honor was lost forever.  In 1911, Joplin moved to New York City, where he wrote a second opera, Treemonisha. Although it never made it to the stage, it’s considered a masterpiece today, and has been performed many times since the score was discovered by accident in 1970.   

In the 1920s, Ragtime composers  such as Jelly Roll Morton and James P Johnson managed to make the transition into Jazz. Morton’s most famous compositions were Black Bottom Stomp and King Porter Stomp, later reworked by both the Benny Goodman and Fletcher Henderson bands. Johnson, in particular, combined Ragtime and Blues into early Jazz. Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Fats Waller were all affected positively by Johnson’s music. Ragtime saw a few revivals over the next few decades, but they weren’t very strong.

After early Jazz came the Big Bands of the 1930s-1940s, the Googie-Woogie and Jitterbug era of Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, and others. Scott Joplin was quickly forgotten. Then along came the movie The Sting in 1974, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford and highlighting Joplin’s music. All of a sudden, Ragtime was popular again and everyone was appreciating The Entertainer (72 years after it was first published) when Marvin Hamlisch recorded it that year. A No. 5 national tune, it was also No. 48 on the year.

But remember who started the Ragtime craze…Ernest Hogan, the true Father of Ragtime. He died in May 1909 in New York City of tuberculosis. He was only 44. In his remaining years, he deeply regretted the use of the racial slur in his 1896 song, All Coons Look Alike to Me. But he sure did a lot for the industry.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

The Unknown Superstar

Guyle Fielder as a Detroit Red Wing
(photo courtesy Jeff Obermeyer)
Guyle Fielder was a legend in the old Western Hockey League, where they called him  “Golden Guyle” and “Tom Fool,” after a lightning-fast 1953 Horse of the Year thoroughbred stallion. One of Fielder’s teammates gave him the nickname because no one could catch him in practice. After a while, they just called him “Tom.”

Born Guyle Abner Fielder in Potlach, Idaho on 11 November 1930 and raised in Nipawin, Saskatchewan, he quit school in Grade 8 to concentrate on hockey. At 16, he moved up to the Prince Albert Mintos of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League and played there for 2 seasons. Then he kicked it into passing gear with the Lethbridge Native Sons of the Western Canada Junior Hockey League in 1949-50 and 1950-51, collecting a combined total of 91 goals and 114 assists for 205 points in only 76 games. On 9 March 1951, he signed a pro contract with Chicago as a free agent, playing in 3 uneventful games for the Blackhawks.

Not a physically-imposing player at 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds, Fielder, however, took to the ice for 22 solid minor pro seasons between 1951-1973, missing only a handful of games due to injuries. An incredible stick-handler, he  was an unselfish center, who would set up an offense like no one in hockey before or since. He played mostly with the Seattle Totems where he wore No 7 and had 10 seasons of 70 assists or more. He also had stints with 2 other Seattle teams, the Bombers and the Americans;  plus the New Westminster Royals, where he was Pacific Coast League Rookie of the Year in 1951-52; the Salt Lake Golden Eagles; the Portland Buckaroos; and the St Louis Flyers, where he was American Hockey League Rookie of the Year in 1952-53. He was the Western Hockey League’s MVP six times, including four straight years from 1957-1960. A 12-time all-star at center, he won 9 scoring titles, and led in assists on 14 occasions. Five times he scored over 100 points and 11 times over 90 points. Lifetime, he finished with regular-season numbers of 1,929 points (438 goals and 1,491 assists) in 1,487 games. But when called up for different NHL spells with Boston, Chicago, and Detroit twice--totaling 9 regular season and 6 playoff games--he couldn’t net a single point.

Why couldn’t he cut it in the Big Show?

To Fielder it was simple. “I didn’t like the NHL’s dump-and-chase system,” the spry 83-year old Fielder told me from his home in Mesa, Arizona.  He preferred to hang onto the puck, until the time was right to snap off a crisp pass to an open teammate gunning for the net.  This irked the NHL coaches and GMs to no end. If you couldn’t make the play, you were supposed to dump it in. “If you have the puck, why give it away?” Fielder added. “That’s what a center is for. Make the plays and set up others.” It seems ironic that around the same time Fielder came on the scene, the NHL had accepted Montreal’s great defenseman Doug Harvey’s style of play, which was very similar to Fielder’s. Harvey loved to control the puck in his end and would entice opposition forecheckers to come and get him, then he’d fire off a pass to a streaking winger. It used to drive Harvey’s coaches--Dick Irvin and Toe Blake--bananas until they realized that he very seldom ever had the puck taken away from him.

Fielder’s last appearance in an NHL uniform followed his then-pro-record 122-point season in 1956-57 with Seattle. Boston had his rights at the time and traded them  for cash to Detroit, where Wings GM Jack Adams had Fielder center the top line with Gordie Howe and Johnny Wilson. “The Wings had an awful start,” Fielder recalled. Subsequently, he was sent down to the second line, then the third line and finally the bench. Six games into the season, the Wings weren’t even dressing him.

“I went to Jack Adams and he said everything was OK. He gave me another $500 to stay, this above the $7,500 minimum. But it wasn’t the money. I wanted to play. I loved the game. It might have been better if I’d not been on a line with Howe,” Fielder said. “Gordie was like me. Control the puck, and make the plays.  No point in both of us on the same line. I saw Adams again and told him I wanted to play, not sit on the bench.” Adams accommodated Fielder by returning him to Seattle where coach Keith Allen took him back. No questions. Fielder spent the rest of his career in the minors. But what a career.

To many hockey insiders, Jack Adams blew his handling of Fielder. Twice. He had Fielder’s rights 5 years before, following a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks. With legendary center Sid Abel gone for the upcoming 1952-53 season, Adams put Fielder on a line with veteran stars Ted Lindsay and Gordie Howe, hoping for another “Production Line,” as the team had had for several years with Abel centering it. But it didn’t work then either.

Adams should have learned his lesson the second time around in 1957. Ex-NHLer Murray Costello said in Gordie, a Hockey Legend by Roy MacSkimming that “…when you were on the ice with Howe, he carried the puck. Well, if Guyle Fielder didn’t carry the puck, he was nothing…What he [Adams] should have done is put 2 speedsters with Fielder, and he’d have sprung them loose…But that was Adams. He ruled the roost.” Bill McFarland, Fielder’s teammate in Seattle added, “It’s mind-boggling to me he [Fielder] couldn’t play in the NHL and not be a great player.” When I lived in Regina, my Junior B coach was Bill Folk, a star defenseman in the Western Hockey League when Fielder played there. Folk added to the mix, also thinking very highly of Fielder’s talents, mentioning more than once that “Golden Guyle” should have been in the NHL.

Fielder was not only a superb playmaker, but he could also score when called upon. The best example was a particular game during the 1953-54 season, while on the road with his Seattle Bombers in Vancouver getting ready to play the Canucks. That morning he read a piece in the local sports pages where the writer criticized Fielder for only being able to set up goals and not going in himself. In response, Fielder scored all 4 goals that night in a 4-3 victory on Canucks goalie Gump Worsley.
Guyle Fielder with the  Seattle Totems
(photo courtesy Jeff Obermeyer)

At one time or another, Fielder was the property of 5 of the 6 NHL teams, every franchise except the Montreal Canadiens. The Toronto Maple Leafs claimed him in June 1958 from Seattle in the Inter-League draft, after another great season in the Western Hockey League  that saw him collect  111 points in 62 games. Leafs coach-GM Punch Imlach wanted Fielder bad and flew out to Seattle to talk with him. Fielder, however, wasn’t all that excited in joining the Leafs. He was well paid on the West Coast, the same as what Imlach was offering, and was in the midst of training as an electrician. Besides, Fielder wanted a promise whereby if he did not make the team, he’d come back to Seattle instead of being sent to the Leafs minor league team, the Pittsburgh Hornets. Imlach said nix to that, and Fielder stayed in the Seattle. Imlach would try again 13 years later.

Fielder retired briefly after scoring a “mediocre” 94 points (20 goals and 74 assists) in the 1968-69 season. At 39, he felt it was time for the youngsters to take over. In addition, he was having a contract dispute with Seattle Totems management. But his retirement didn’t last long. The expansion Salt Lake City Eagles received permission from Seattle to talk to Fielder, then offered him a then-hefty $20,000 contract. First, the Eagles traded away forward Bobby Schmautz to get him. Fielder also liked the fact that Salt Lake’s coach Ray Kinasewich was an ex-linemate of his in Seattle.

In the fall of 1971, Punch Imlach, this time coach-GM of the expansion Buffalo Sabres, invited Fielder to the team’s camp. Two months away from 41, Fielder impressed everybody with his skills. The much-younger Sabres players such as Gil Perreault and Rick Martin thought he was the best player on the ice. “He’s as good as he ever was. He’s absolutely unreal,” Imlach informed the press.

But Fielder still preferred his familiar Western Hockey League, and Imlach lost out a second time with the star. In January 1972, Fielder was traded to the Portland Buckaroos. A month later, the  Dayton-Houston Aeros selected Fielder in the World Hockey League’s first draft, but again he stayed where he was. After a year and a half with the Buckaroos, he announced his final retirement, six months shy of his 43rd birthday. The patented playmaker to the end, he scored 11 goals and collected 47 assists, while missing only 2 games of the 72-game schedule.

Was Fielder born too soon? Perhaps. Let’s project him forward in time to 2014. Wouldn’t he be a great fit in Mike Babcock’s Detroit Red Wings system of puck control and crisp passing? But forget putting him on the same line with another wizard with a puck by the name of Pavel Datsyuk. Fielder agreed with me and added, “Datsyuk  and  Zetterberg [his teammate] are two great hockey players. They play the game the way it should be played.”

Asked if he watches that much hockey today, he replied, “I do but I don’t like what I see.  In my day, very few players were over six feet. Now no one is under six feet. They’re bigger and faster, but no hockey sense. When the guys get the puck now, they fire it in the corner and they all go chasing it, leaving no one to pass to. It frustrates me.”

He’s also frustrated by not being in the Hockey Hall of Fame.  “There’s several players in there who had never played a game in the NHL,” he said. Fielder’s right. Vladislav Trekiak and Valeri Kharlamov from the 1972 Russian team are 2 of them. And you can’t forget the 3 recent  female inductees, Angela James, Cammi Granato, and Geraldine Heaney?  Are these 5  more deserving than him?

Guyle Fielder was the first professional player to score 2,000 points in regular season and playoffs combined. Only Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretsky and Mark Messier have done it since. The difference is Fielder scored all his points in the minor leagues, and because of that a lot of people have never heard of him. And that’s a shame.

Still, the question remains…is he being kept out of the Hall of Fame because he didn’t play the game the NHL’s way?