Monthly Archives: July 2014

The Curveball

The story is that 14-year-old Arthur Cummings came up with the idea for the curveball while throwing clam shells on a Brooklyn beach in 1863. If he could make a clam shell curve, the boy mused, why couldn’t he do the same with a baseball?

The obvious answer is that, aerodynamically, a baseball is not a clam shell. Cummings, though, kept experimenting, and over the next few years became adept at spinning the ball up to home plate in a way opposing batters had never seen. It was tough to do. In those days the ball was delivered underhand, and strikeouts were rare.

As a schoolboy in 1865, Arthur Cummings pitched a team of Oswego County, N.Y. all-stars to victory over neighboring Onondaga County. Later that he year he joined an amateur team in Brooklyn, and was 37-2. Two years later, now with the Brooklyn Excelsior Club, Cummings’ sweet deliveries earned him the nickname “Candy.” It was by that name he was known the rest of his pitching career.

Over the next decade, Cummings pitched for a variety of amateur and professional teams. In 1872 he pitched every inning of a 52-game season for the New York Mutuals, and led the National Association in innings pitched, complete games and strikeouts — with a grand total of 14. In 1874 he struck out six consecutive Chicago White Stockings.

Cummings retired from baseball in 1877 at the age of 28, and opened a paint and wallpaper store.

Then and now, there is considerable disagreement over whether Cummings “invented” the curveball. Other pitchers, most notably Fred Goldsmith of the White Stockings, insisted they developed the pitch before Cummings. No other pitcher in baseball’s early days was more closely associated with the curve, however, and when the Baseball Hall of Fame opened in 1939, William Arthur “Candy” Cummings was inducted posthumously as the father of the curveball.

Until the early twentieth century, the curveball was considered by some to be unsportsmanlike and a form of cheating. The president of Harvard forbid his team to use it, and at one point the curveball was illegal (the spitball, however, was not). Over the years, the curveball and its derivatives have flummoxed would-be hitters and physicists alike. A fierce debate raged for many years over whether the curveball actually curved or was merely an optical illusion.

Asked his opinion, the great Cardinals pitcher Dizzy Dean replied, “Go stand behind a tree sixty feet away, and I’ll hit you with an optical illusion.”

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The hanging of Frank Henson

Before lethal injection, before the electric chair, before the walls went up at the state prison in McAlester, individual counties were responsible for executing criminals convicted of capital crimes.

Only one such execution occurred in Tulsa County.

In early 1911, a scuffle broke out in a bar at Dawson. Dawson has long since been absorbed into the city, but in 1911 it was a rural ranching and coal-mining community on the Frisco line. When the dust cleared, a county deputy names Charles Stamper was dead and all fingers pointed to a black man who went by the name Frank Henson.

Henson was duly trialed and sentenced to death. Remarkably, given current attitudes, Tulsa County appealed the sentence. It did not want to execute Henson or anyone else. Oklahoma had executed only two people in its first three years of statehood, and Gov. Lee Cruce opposed capital punishment on moral grounds. But in this case he refused to intervene. Frank Henson was to hang by the neck until dead.

Sheriff Bill McCullough, a former cowboy with a big handlebar mustache, had the job of building the scaffolding and, when the executioner failed to show up, tying the noose, putting it around Henson’s neck, and dropping the trapdoor. McCullough would be sheriff a decade later during Tulsa’s 1921 race riot, but late in life called the Henson execution “about the worst job I ever had to do.”

Henson, maintaining his innocence until the end, was brought to the gallows just after dawn on March 31. Five hundred people had gathered to watch, despite the hour.

A black preacher named C.L. Netherland read the Twenty-third Psalm. Henson asked to speak. The witnesses had lied, he said. Stamper fired first, without identifying himself, said Henson.

“I’m going to get higher than any of you,” he said. “Some of you are going to have tribulations getting there.”

Henson prayed for McCullough and the other lawmen escorting him, asked God to forgive them, “for they know not what they do.”

Then, finally, he said, “My name is not Frank Henson. It is Amos Bell. You won’t find anything bad behind that name.”

The noose was then placed around Henson’s — or Bell’s — neck and a hood placed over his head.

“Are you ready Frank?” McCullough asked. When Henson didn’t respond, the sheriff added “may God bless you,” as he pulled the lever to drop the trap door.

“Whether the execution of Henson was justifiable was a question debated her for some time,” the Tulsa World reported. “Many wanted the sentence commuted to life imprisonment.”

Even in 1911, it seems, capital punishment was a source of controversy and strong feelings.

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Unlike father, states don’t always know — or do — best

Every time someone waxes poetic about the virtues of state and local government, especially in Oklahoma, I am reminded of three words.

County.

Commissioner.

Scandal.

In the early 1980s, some 230 current and former county commissioners and county contractors were convicted or pleaded guilty in a kickback scheme that remains the largest public official scandal in the nation’s history. The practice was so engrained some of the convicted seemed to think that county commissioners got their name because they worked on commission. “I swear I never took more than my 10 percent,” one of them is supposed to have said.

Far be it from me to defend the federal government. It’s big, it’s bulky, it’s clumsy and it’s not terribly efficient. Just today Sen. Tom Coburn chastised a federal agency that seems to have run out of things to do around 1988. And I don’t think anyone will argue the unhealthy influence of money in Washington, D.C. But, as national governments go, ours is not too bad. Afghanistan, any one?

The idea that local and state governments are inherently superior is just not borne out. State governments are at least as likely to give us bad government as the folks in Washington. State governments have given us Jim Crow, regressive taxes, lapdog regulators and corruption on an epic scale. Incompetence, greed and plain stupidity are as likely to show up in city hall as in Congress, and local schools boards, left to their own devices, have been known to go soft on algebra and hard on coaches who don’t play the right kids.

Lately I’ve heard many politicians say we Oklahomans would not dare damage our own water or land because, you know, it’s ours. I’ve wanted to ask if they’ve ever heard of the Dust Bowl or Tar Creek, or how the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board, which cleans up old oil and gas well sites, came to be.

In a perfect world, local and state governments would be better than national governments. They’re smaller, more agile and more knowledgeable about the people they govern.

But this is not a perfect world. In the real world, bad government is everywhere.

And so is good.

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Greenwood and Deep Deuce

The best thing about being a reporter and writer is the challenge of constant learning on a broad, almost limitless scope. Subjects today included federal water policy, the vote on a 2008 immigration bill, the state’s drug laws and the date what is now U.S. 169 linked Owasso to Tulsa. I also had occasion to check the spelling of Trixie Belden, dig up the Oklahoma National Guard’s after-action reports following the Tulsa Race Riot and glance over a poll on wind power in Oklahoma.

Anita Arnold is the one who really took me to school today, though. We had two lengthy phone conversations today related to a piece I’m writing for Oklahoma Today about Oklahoma City’s Deep Deuce and Tulsa’s Greenwood district, the historic black neighborhoods in the state’s two largest cities. I’m fairly familiar with Greenwood and its history but know considerably less about Deep Deuce.

Anita is the executive director of BLAC, Inc., an Oklahoma City organization originally founded more than forty years ago to promote music and arts in the public schools, and particularly Douglass, the city’s historically black high school. We talked — or rather, Anita talked and I listened — about the great musicians Deep Deuce turned out in its glory days.

Although now Deep Deuce is applied to an area north of Bricktown east of downtown Oklahoma City,  it was, strictly speaking, only the 300 block of NE Second Street. In that one block was crammed the business district that was for decades the beating heart of black Oklahoma City. Here Charlie Christian and Jimmy Rushing first made music and Ralph Ellison dreamed of becoming a composer and conductor, unaware his path led instead to acclaim as a writer.

Deep Deuce, like Greenwood, has had something of a revival in recent years after decades of decline. Also like Greenwood, this reawakening is not without controversy and even resentment. There is a feeling among some  African Americans have been pushed aside, that outside money is capitalizing on their heritage.

The irony is not lost on them.

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Drugs wars and the Tulsa race riot

Drugs wars and the Tulsa race riot.

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