Sunday, April 28, 2013

"Mad Men," Season Six, Episode 4, "The Flood"

Reminiscent of the season three episode, “The Grown-Ups,” which revolved around the Kennedy assassination, “The Flood” portrays the characters’ reaction to the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.  Changes in everyone’s lives play out against the background of the murder of the nation’s leading civil rights leader in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

Early in the episode, Paul Newman addresses an advertising award ceremony attended by most of the main characters. An opponent of the Vietnam War, Newman expresses his support for Senator Eugene McCarthy, praising him for challenging Lyndon Johnson over the war before Robert Kennedy entered the race.  Indeed, antiwar forces wanted RFK to run against LBJ, but he turned them down.  McCarthy accepted and with the assistance of an energetic group of young volunteers, nearly defeated Johnson in the New Hampshire primary.  Only after seeing Johnson’s weakness did Kennedy enter the Democratic race.  Abe Drexler, the most politically progressive character on the show, applauds Newman’s remarks.

Everything changes when someone shouts out that Martin Luther King has been killed. Still working for New York City Mayor John Lindsay, Henry Francis leaves his Westchester County home to help out, telling Betty “they’re going to burn down the city,” a reference to the urban riots of recent years, notably Watts in 1965 and Detroit and Newark in 1967.  Abe leaves the ceremony and goes to Harlem to report on the black community’s reaction and news reports follow about how King was murdered while advocating for sanitation workers in Memphis.

Pete returns to his apartment in the city and calls Trudy in the Connecticut suburbs.  Whereas the couple held each closely while watching the coverage of the Kennedy assassination five years earlier, they are now estranged.  The separation is cemented when Trudy rejects Peter’s suggestion that he come stay with her and their child during this difficult time.

The next day, Henry confirms to Betty the newspaper’s accounts of the previous night.  Along with a few advisers, Lindsay walked into Harlem to try to calm an angry crowd and was largely successful.  Though there was a small riot that night, the city avoided the troubles that plagued Washington, D.C. and other cities that night (Cannato, 211-215).  Indeed, riots occurred in 125 cities across the nation that night.  Later in the episode, though, Henry expresses frustration that the city achieved calmness by paying off urban militants.  Indeed, some have criticized the Lindsay Administration for funneling money to radicals in the late 60s and early 70s (Cannato, 130-131).

Harry Crane and Peter have a confrontation because Harry is worried about advertisers losing money because news reports are preempting the prime time schedule.  Crane is annoyed by all the network special reports, a common phenomenon in the days before cable news and Internet when the three networks were the only game in town for news.  Peter, who has been a relative liberal on race, including pushing clients to pursue the African American market, is furious about Harry’s greed in the face of a national tragedy, calling him a racist.  “No one will be happy until they turn the most beautiful city in the world into a shithole,” responds Crane.

Meanwhile, Don seems unable to relate to his kids during the aftermath of the tragedy and finds solace in (surprise) alcohol.  While Megan, Sally and Gene go to a vigil in the park, Don takes Bobby to see “Planet of the Apes.”  With its depiction of the decline and destruction of humanity, the film very much reflected the dark mood of 1968.  For more on the movie, see

 For the most part, the episode is replete with white people upset over Dr. King’s death while providing solace (albeit awkwardly) to black co-workers.  While this no doubt occurred in some instances, it is important to remember that King became a much more polarizing figure than remembered during the final years of his life.  His opposition to the Vietnam War alienated many Americans and his focus on economic issues, which included talk of income redistribution, was also controversial.  King moved to address class divisions in America and was in the midst of preparing for his Poor Peoples’ Campaign, which was to include a march to Washington, D.C. where he and his allies would camp out until Congress legislated greater funding to combat poverty.

“The Flood” proves to be the best episode of what has been a relatively weak season to this point.  With the Tet Offensive and King assassination behind them, more turmoil awaits our friends as the summer of 1968 arrives on “Mad Men.”

Sources:  Vincent Cannato, The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York (New York, 2001)

Monday, April 22, 2013


I recommend “42,” which proves to be an entertaining retelling of the story of the integration of baseball in 1947, even though it indulges in many Hollywood clichés.  With strong performances from its two leads, Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson and Harrison Ford (in his best performance in years) as Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey, the film introduces another generation of Americans to an important story in the country’s journey to civil rights.  The movie focuses on Robinson’s life from his initial signing by Rickey in 1945 to the conclusion of his first season with the Dodgers in 1947.

Like many historical films, “42” only provides limited context to what precedes the events it depicts.  The introduction to the film references the impact of World War II on race relations, as many black veterans returned home with higher expectations after fighting for democracy in a war against racist regimes abroad.  The agitation of the American Communist Party, as well as the pressure from new state laws barring employment discrimination, like the Ives-Quinn bill in New York, in pressuring major league baseball to integrate, goes unmentioned. Wendell Smith, a sportswriter for the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most important black newspapers in the country, has a major part in the film, but his role and that of other black sportswriters in pushing major league baseball to eliminate the color barrier is also neglected.  The film gives Rickey full credit for integrating baseball and while Rickey’s role was truly historical and heroic, “42” doesn’t provide a full picture of the story behind Robinson’s emergence.

Staring with Robinson’s first spring training in Florida, the movie focuses on the ferocious resistance to integration in America in the 1940s. As would be the case until the 1960s, black players could not stay in the same hotels with their white counterparts due to the Sunshine State’s Jim Crow laws.  Indeed, Robinson broke the color line in baseball nearly a decade before Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-56), the events usually regarded as the start of the modern civil rights movement.

After a year in the minors in Montreal, Robinson made the Dodgers squad in 1947, but many of his teammates were not happy about it.  As the film accurately depicts, several of them signed a petition declaring their unwillingness to play with Jackie.  Manager Leo Durocher (played well by “Law and Order: SVU’s” Christopher Meloni) orders a team meeting to tell the team that Robinson will play if he can help the team.

Once Robinson debuts in 1947, the film does a relatively accurate retelling of his first season.  From skimming Jonathan Eig’s Opening Day (2007), it appears the screenwriter relied heavily on that book.  Philadelphia Phillies’ manager Ben Chapman, a native Alabamian, is the stock villain of the movie, as he repeatedly taunts Robinson with racial slurs during his plate appearances.

The movie includes the famous story of Robinson’s appearance in Cincinnati where, as legend has it, the crowd, which likely included many people from nearby Kentucky, heckled him with racist epithets.  While this occurs, Dodger shortstop and team leader Pee Wee Reese, a Kentuckian himself, comes over to Robinson and put his arm around him to demonstrate his support for his teammate.  While this symbol of interracial brotherhood is now memorialized with a statue in Brooklyn, there is little contemporary record of the incident and it likely did not occur (Eig, 127-129).

In true Hollywood style, Robinson’s heroism and performance wins over his teammates.  Though there is little doubt that many players embraced him more as the season progressed, they rarely socialized with him during that inaugural season.  The movie concludes with Robinson, like Roy Hobbs in “The Natural,” (1984) hitting a home run to clinch the pennant.   Conspicuously omitted from the feel-good story is the Dodgers’ loss to the Yankees in the World Series that fall.

The movie’s conclusion notes that two other African American players, Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella, joined Brooklyn in the next two years.  Still, the process of integration in major league was slower than the film suggests.  It would not be until 1959 that the Boston Red Sox became the last team to integrate.

These criticisms aside, “42” is a fun movie that portrays an important part of American history.  Like many other historical movies, it makes its audience familiar with a story it would likely be unaware of otherwise.

Sources: Jonathan Eig, Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season (New York, 2007)

Sunday, April 21, 2013

"Mad Men," Season Six, Episode 3, "To Have and To Hold"

In one of the least-subtle episodes in the six seasons of “Mad Men,” virtually every issue of the 1960s comes into play, from the sexual revolution to Vietnam.  Despite all the obvious historical references throughout “To Have and To Hold,” I’m not sure where this season is headed.

With Dow Chemical frustrated by the bad PR they are receiving over the military’s use of napalm in Vietnam, Harry Crane and a colleague conceive of a strategy to boost the company’s image:  an one-hour primetime televised Broadway show with celebrities ranging from John Wayne to New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath (including the horrifying idea of Wayne in a sketch of “Camelot.”)  The program would also feature performances of traditional songs such as “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and the Notre Dame fight song, while Dow would sponsor the show with the slogan “family products for the American family.”  Though President Nixon would not use the term until the next year, Crane and his allies seem to be appealing to the “Silent Majority” of Americans disturbed by the counterculture, the antiwar movement, and other changes of the era.

Meanwhile, during an evening out, Megan’s boss mentions the controversy over the Smothers Brothers criticism of the Vietnam War in their television program, saying, “sponsors and the network don’t want to have a conversation about the war.”   Indeed, CBS canceled the program in 1969 because of the hullabaloo surrounding it.  In the ensuing conversation, Don notes that he’s against the war, the first time he has mentioned his views regarding Vietnam.  While noteworthy, Don’s comment comes after the previous episode, “The Collaborators,” revolving around the Tet Offensive, following which a majority of the country thought the war was a mistake.  See>

The sexual revolution arrives in full force as Megan’s boss and his wife propose that Megan and Don go back to their place, smoke marijuana, and “see what happens” and if they can “become better acquainted.” It appears they are proposing some kind of wife/husband swapping situation.  At the same time, Joan and an old girlfriend randomly pick up a couple of guys.

Gender inequality again makes an appearance, as Joan’s partnership in the agency doesn’t seem to mean much when her attempt to fire a secretary is thwarted by the male powers that be.  Though her old friend is jealous that she made it on her own without help from a husband, Joan tells her that it is not all that it seems and that “I’ve been working there (the agency) for 15 years and they still treat me like a secretary.”

As the episode ends, Don remains unable to deal with female independence, unhappy with Peggy’s success at a rival firm as well as Megan’s burgeoning career as an actress.  Indeed, after avoiding the set of Megan’s daytime soap opera for months, he makes a point to come and watch her first sex scene.  Despite the relative tameness of the fictional encounter and his own ongoing affair with a neighbor, Don is furious at Megan for “enjoying it” and implies she’s a prostitute.  It’s 1968 and the world is changing, but Don Draper remains the same.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

"Mad Men," Season Six, Episode Two, "The Collaborators"

As with previous episodes revolving around historical events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War and the Tet Offensive serve as a metaphor for the various issues individual characters face in “The Collaborators.”  Don, Peter and Peggy’s personal and professional battles are all contrasted with the events in Southeast Asia in late January/early February 1968.

By late 1967, the American war effort was losing support at home as the third year of direct U.S. involvement came to a close.  Though the “attrition” strategy masterminded by U.S. commander William Westmoreland had inflicted serious casualties on both the Viet Cong (VC) and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), the “search and destroy” missions carried out by American troops neither addressed the social inequities that created the conditions for the insurgency nor strengthened popular support for the South Vietnamese government.  Furthermore, in a war without clear front lines like World War II, the only sign of progress Americans could see was the Pentagon’s report of the “body count” of enemy dead that aired on the network evening news every night. As American casualties mounted this was no longer sufficient to maintain the public’s belief in U.S. military success.  Fearing the growing disenchantment in the country, President Johnson and his military commanders launched an “optimism offensive” during the fall of 1967, repeatedly telling the American public that the U.S. military effort had turned the corner and that victory was approaching.

At the same time, the communists planned a massive attack on U.S. forces.  In the fall of ‘67, they launched a series of attacks in rural areas to draw American troops away from the cities.  In addition, VC and NVA forces attacked the Marine base at Khe Sanh, leading Westmoreland to fear a second “Dien Bien Phu,” the battle that led to the French withdrawal from Vietnam in 1954.  Distracted by these feints, American forces were caught off-guard when the enemy began its largest offensive of the war during the traditional cease-fire for the lunar holiday of Tet.

80,000 VC troops attacked 36 of the 64 provincial capitals on January 30, 1968, a massive coordinated attack that flew in the face of the public optimism of the Johnson Administration.  As heard in the episode, the guerilla forces even penetrated the US embassy in the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon, though, as Sylvia Rosen observed, “We got it back.”  After months of government pronouncements of military success, Tet shocked the American public and destroyed the remaining credibility of the Johnson Administration.  “What the hell is going on?  I thought we were winning the war,” exclaimed a surprised Walter Cronkite.  Or as Arnold Rosen tells Don, “You know we’re losing the war.”

The communists hoped the urban dwellers of Saigon and the other cities would rise up against their colonial masters, but it turned out no revolution was in the offing.  Instead, the U.S. Army repelled the attack as the VC left the cover of the jungle and exposed themselves to superior American firepower.  Still, public opinion turned against the war for good.  Cronkite traveled to Vietnam to investigate the situation and returned home to tell the American people the conflict was a “stalemate.”  Watching the CBS anchor’s editorial from the White House, Johnson mused that if he had lost Cronkite, he had lost the country, a tribute to the power of the evening news in the pre-cable, pre-Internet era (though many historians believe the media was only catching up to the disaffection of the public rather than leading it). 

After nearly losing the New Hampshire primary to Eugene McCarthy and also facing a challenge from arch-nemesis Robert Kennedy, LBJ told the country on March 31 that he would not seek re-election in the fall.   Slowly, the U.S. began to turn the war effort over to the South Vietnamese themselves, a strategy of “Vietnamization” that Richard Nixon gradually implemented after his narrow victory over Hubert Humphrey in 1968.

Jackie Robinson Day and the Decline of Black Baseball Players

As major league baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day on Monday, it is remarkable that the number of African Americans in baseball has fallen from a quarter of all players during the mid-1970s to 8.5 percent in 2011(Ruck, Raceball, 177; “2011 Race and Gender Report Card,” p. 1).  Indeed, Hispanics have surpassed blacks as the largest minority in the game and there is little sign that the number of African Americans playing in the majors will increase anytime soon. Though the integration of baseball was a seminal event in the civil rights movement, most young blacks going into professional sports today seem to prefer basketball and football.

It was not always this way.  During the first half of the 20th century, the major leagues were segregated, but baseball was at the center of black culture.  After players and owners drew the color line in the 1890s, a number of independent teams such as the Cuban Giants continued the tradition of African-American baseball.  With the Great Migration of blacks to the North during World War I, a fan and consumer base emerged capable of supporting a league.  Organized under the leadership of former pitcher Rube Foster in 1920, the Negro Leagues became one of a number of African-American institutions that sustained black life under Jim Crow.  Though they often labored in obscurity compared to their white contemporaries, players such as catcher Josh Gibson and pitcher Satchel Paige were among the best in the sport in the 1930s and 40s, even if they never played in the majors (Gibson) or didn’t during their prime (Paige)

After struggling during the Depression, the Negro Leagues thrived during World War II, as a number of forces laid the groundwork for integration. The fight against fascism and Nazi racism abroad exposed the contradictions between American rhetoric and American practice.  Black sportswriters agitated for major league teams to sign black players, with help from liberal politicians and the Communist Party.  The passing of Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis in 1944, who had long held the line on segregation, opened the door for change.  Brooklyn Dodgers’ GM Branch Rickey walked through it when he signed Jackie Robinson, then playing for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues, to a contract in 1945.

When Robinson played his first game as a Dodger on April 15, 1947, he debuted a year before President Truman integrated the military and nearly a decade before the epochal civil rights landmarks of Brown v. Board of Education and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  Robinson faced incredible racism in his early years in the league, but excelled, paving the way for a parade of black stars in subsequent years, including Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.  As a result, the Negro Leagues declined and disbanded.  Not every team quickly followed Brooklyn’s lead, however, as the Boston Red Sox only became the final team to integrate in 1959.  While black players entered the league, there were no African American managers or coaches in the majors during this time, as the end of the Negro Leagues meant the loss of opportunities for blacks in these positions.

The 1960s and 70s were the heyday of African American participation in the majors as well as the game’s popularity in black America.  As ESPN’s Michael Wilbon recalled, “The talk in the barbershop wasn’t of Wilt and Russell nearly as much as it was of Aaron and Mays.” (Washington Post, April 14, 2007)  In the face of racism and death threats in 1974, Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record.  The percentage of blacks in the major leagues reached an all-time high of 27 percent the following year as 16 black players, comprising 40 percent of all non-pitchers, played in the 1975 All-Star Game (Ruck, 177-178).

The change seemed to begin in the 1980s as other sports emerged.  The National Basketball Association (NBA) had nearly gone bankrupt during the disco era, in part because some viewers and advertisers saw the league as “too black.”  The merger with the American Basketball Association (ABA) in 1976 brought Julius “Dr. J” Erving into the league, reviving it, followed by the arrival of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, whose rivalry helped make it comparable to football and baseball in terms of popularity.  The arrival of Michael Jordan then sent the league into a stratosphere by the 1990s, with millions of young black (and white) kids wanting “to be like Mike.” 

Football grew and surpassed baseball in popularity while featuring plenty of black players on the field, but there was one major position that remained closed to African Americans as late as the 1980s—quarterback.  Racial stereotypes suggested that blacks did not have the intelligence and leadership skills to run an NFL offense.  It was routine for pro coaches to move a black college quarterback to another position after he was drafted.  Those that insisted on playing QB had to leave for the Canadian Football League (CFL), as future Hall of Famer Warren Moon did for several years in the early 1980s.

The Washington Redskins’ Doug Williams punctured this myth when he threw five touchdown passes in a victorious MVP performance in Super Bowl XXII in 1988.  In the following years, Donovan McNabb, Steve McNair, and others achieved success as quarterbacks.  The Atlanta Falcons and Oakland Raiders drafted Michael Vick and Jamarcus Russell 1st overall in the NFL Draft in 2001 and 2007, respectively, something that would have been inconceivable as late as the 1990s.  Though black QBs do not yet face a completely even playing field, they are unlikely to be forced to change roles anymore.  The opportunity to play the prestige position has encouraged more young African Americans to pursue football at the expense of baseball.

The number of blacks in the game remained reasonably high, as there was a lag before declining youth participation impacted the percentage of African Americans playing the game. As late as the mid-1990s, there were still as many blacks as Latinos in the majors and Ken Griffey, Jr. and Barry Bonds competed for the title of “best player in the game, ” though their choice of the sport was no doubt influenced by the fact that they were both the sons of star players.

For the most part, it appears the decline of black players reflects greater sports options rather than discrimination.  Both college basketball and football hold out the promise for earlier stardom than college baseball, and there are far more scholarship possibilities for the former than the latter. Under Commissioner Bud Selig, major league baseball has made great efforts to rejuvenate the game in urban areas through its Revive Baseball in the Inner Cities (RBI) program.  Still, some African-American players, such as the Los Angeles Angels’ Torri Hunter, have complained that management’s search for Latin players comes partly out of a desire for a cheaper and more malleable work force.

As players take the field with Robinson’s historic 42 on their back, there will be relatively few African Americans in the lineup or on the mound, though nearly 40 percent of the participants will be people of color (2011 Race and Gender Report Card, p.2). Indeed, no sport better reflects the multiculturalism of today’s US more than baseball with its large Latino and Asian contingents.  Without Jackie Robinson’s courage 66 years ago, the contemporary diversity of the sport would be inconceivable.

Sources: Rob Ruck, Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game (Beacon Press, 2011)
“2011 Race and Gender Report Card,” The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports.