Monday, March 31, 2008


The dubious distinction of the longest losing streak in basketball history goes to the infamous Washington Generals, who, after 2499 consecutive defeats finally beat the Harlem Globetrotters on January 5, 1971 in a game at Martin, Tennessee. Children in the crowd cried after the Globetrotters' loss--it was like killing Santa Claus. The final score was 100-99 on a shot by 50 year old point guard Red Klotz with 3 seconds left. The timekeeper tried to stop or slow down the clock to allow Meadowlark Lemon to make the final shot but he missed the shot. The victorious Generals celebrated the win by dousing themselves with orange soda instead of champagne (alcohol was not allowed in the venue). The Generals have not won since that brief taste of victory, losing over 10,000 games in a row. In fact, in their entire history, going back to 1953, they won only 6 games, while losing over 13,000.

They have lost games in front of presidents, kings, queens, popes, dictators, Russian premier Khrushchev, Chinese premier Deng Hsiao Ping, and assorted other bigwigs. They've lost in over 100 countries on every continent and thousands of cities across North America. They've even lost on aircraft carriers.

The Washington Generals have become a household name, synonymous with losing. The media often compares them to other notable losers ranging from the Chicago Cubs to perennial presidential candidate Harold Stassen, to the French Army. Think about Charlie Brown attempting to kick the football while Lucy pulls the ball away for the ten thousandth time. In a Simpsons episode, Krusty the Clown bet $5,000 against the Globetrotters, telling his advisors, "I thought the Generals were due!"

I'm hesitant to describe them as the worst team in history because the players have to have talent to be competitive and do what they do. The team recruits decent players from Division II and Division III colleges, mostly Caucasian but some Black players also, who are willing to make good money to be straight men to the clowning antics of the Harlem Globetrotters. The players are generally not good enough to play serious professional basketball, but they can play for many years in show business. Current coach Reggie Harrison hasn't won a game in his career, but doesn't worry about irate fans or sportswriters trying to get him fired. In his pregame peptalk, Harrison says, "This is the night the coyote is going to catch the roadrunner."

In every game, the teams play normal, serious basketball for the first half and the Globetrotters do their stunts in the second half. In most games, the score is kept fairly close--most games are decided by 10 points or less.

The team is the alter ego of Louis "Red" Klotz, born in 1921, and now about 87 years old, and needless to say, retired as an active player and coach. Klotz was an outstanding player in Philadelphia, leading his high school team to city championships in 1939 and 1940, and earning Philadelphia Player of the Year honors both seasons. He was only 5'7", but then height was not a major factor in basketball at that time. He played at Villanova University and served in World War II. After the War, he played one season for the Baltimore Bullets of the NBA.

He also played for the Philadelphia Sphas of the American Basketball League (ABL). The mostly Jewish team got its name from the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association which supplied the uniforms. The Sphas, an elite team during the first half of the
20th Century, defeated the Harlem Globetrotters in Klotz's first game against them. In the 1930's and 1940's, professional basketball was dominated by short Jewish guys named Red--Red Klotz, Red Holzman, Red Auerbach--who could shoot the two handed set shot. It's not known whether football legend Red Grange was Jewish.

Klotz later bought the team and changed the name to the Washington Generals. In 1953Abe Saperstein, owner of the Harlem Globetrotters was seeking a team to barnstorm with, and invited Klotz to have his team play them on a regular basis.

Over the years, the Generals changed their name from time to time to give the appearance of more teams. Other names associated with the team were the Boston Shamrocks, Atlantic City Seagulls, Baltimore Rockets and New Jersey Reds, and most recently, the New York Nationals. The uniforms were different but the players were the same. The team remains a separate organization from the Harlem Globetrotters.

Klotz claims the games are "real" and "competitive" contests and his team tries to win every game. To quote Klotz, "like Fred Astaire had Ginger Rogers, the Harlem Globetrotters have always had a dance partner, but I've always been dancing backwards."

The Generals' players have to maintain a certain skill level to make the exhibitions work. They must work with perfect timing during the Globetrotters signature moves to ensure the gags are executed properly. By the time the player has had his shorts pulled down, or the ball bounced through his legs or off his head for the 10,000th time, he obviously has the timing down perfectly. Every game the Generals flail away attempting to get the ball as the Globetrotters play keep away to the tune of Sweet Georgia Brown. They have to be just good enough to make the games look competitive or they'll lost the audience.

Until Congress investigates whether the games are fixed, you probably won't lose money if you bet against the Washington Generals.



Monday, March 17, 2008


Most of us have heard the term Damon Runyon character but never gave a thought to the real person after whom the term was coined. This is another example of an eponym--a word named after a person. A Damon Runyon character describes a disreputable person who walks a fine line between both sides of the law. We're talking about colorful street people like gamblers, pimps, gangsters and other assorted lowlifes who were the subjects of Damon Runyon's stories.

Damon Runyon (1884-1946) was a journalist and short story writer who wrote about those aforementioned underworld characters on the streets of New York City. He was born as Alfred Damon Runyan (yes, with an "a", not an "o") out of wedlock in the other Manhattan (Kansas, where his birthplace is on the National Register of Historic Places). He was raised in Pueblo, Colorado, where his father and grandfather were newspapermen.

Runyon came to New York to work as a sportswriter and columnist for Hearst's New York American where he covered the New York Giants baseball team as a beat writer from 1911 until 1920, as well as covering boxing matches. He was credited with revolutionizing sportswriting by covering not only the game itself but the drama off the field and in the stands, highlighting the eccentric and unusual. His contributions were significant enough than in 1967, he was inducted into the writers' wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. He is also a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

A close friend was fellow sportswriter William B. "Bat" Masterson, the former Western gunfighter who knew the Runyan family in Colorado. Two of Runyon's assistants later became famous in their own right--Ed Sullivan and Walter Winchell.

His stories were sometimes turned into humorous Broadway plays and movies. He gave his characters names like Apple Annie, Harry the Horse, and Sam the Gonoph. Perhaps the best known is his short story, The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown, which became better known as Guys and Dolls. A long running Broadway play, it was made into a movie with Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra. The story line was about gamblers with names like Nicely Nicely, Nathan Detroit, Sky Masterson and Big Julie from Chicago, who mended their ways, finding religion with the social worker/reformer (Jean Simmons) who was Marlon Brando's love interest in the movie.

The characters in Guys and Dolls were prototypes for those on The Sopranos or cop shows like NYPD Blue. Runyon was a gambler himself, and gambling was a common theme in his works. In one of his most famous quotes paraphrasing Ecclesiastes, he declared, "The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet."

Runyon was described by Cornell English Professor Daniel Schwarz as among the first to "stylize both the language and the behavior of gangsters and depict them as another part of the socio-economic system, showing how the underworld provided clients with gambling, sex and hard-to-get sports tickets and, during Prohibition, with liquor."

Runyon tapped a vein of interest in the American public which has exhibited itself in recent times with the popularity of Mario Puzo's gangster novels, Frances Coppola's Godfather movies, Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, and Barry Levinson's Bugsy, as well as The Sopranos. Undeniably, the American public is fascinated by the sleazy side of entertainment, sports and politics which has made the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, the O.J. Simpson trial, and the downfall of Gov. Eliot Spitzer into spectator events.

Runyon also wrote, among other things, Little Miss Marker, which starred Shirley Temple in her film debut, The Lemon Drop Kid which starred Bob Hope, and Pride of the Yankees.

Several slang terms entered the language, courtesy of Damon Runyon's rich vocabulary:

Ever-loving--almost always prefacing "wife", as in "his ever-loving wife"
More than somewhat--quite a bit, as in "he is more than somewhat married"
Roscoe/John Roscoe/The old equalizer--gun

Runyon died of throat cancer in 1946 and had his ashes scattered over Manhattan (NY) from a plane flown by legendary pilot and World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker. After his death, Walter Winchell established the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation in his memory. It continues to fund cancer research today. The first telethon in TV history was hosted by Milton Berle in 1949 to raise funds for the Foundation.




Last month the world marked the death of 93 year old Pearl Cornioley, f/k/a Pearl Witherington, whose wartime exploits were the stuff of legend, but who lived out her years relatively quietly in England.  Her younger days were anything but that.

Born and raised in Paris to English parents, she spoke both English and French fluently.  She was the eldest of 4 daughters of an alcoholic father.  When the Germans invaded and occupied France in 1940, her family was in danger, and the 26 year old Pearl arranged their move into unoccupied France, Spain, Gibraltar, and eventually to England.

In England, she worked for the Air Ministry, but she found the desk job boring.  She longed to get into the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the secret group commissioned by Winston Churchill to "set Europe ablaze."  She talked her way into the job, and after a few weeks of training, she parachuted into occupied France one night in September, 1943, landing in the dark between two small lakes.  Thus began her mission to work with the French underground, the Maquis.   Her fluency in unaccented French was invaluable for the mission.  She posed as a representative for a cosmetics company with the codename "Marie".  The mission required her and the other women in the operation to appear inconspicuous.  They wore no makeup and dressed conservatively. 

As Capt. Selwyn Jepson, SOE's senior recruiting officer said in an interview:

I was responsible for recruiting women for the work, in the face of a good deal of opposition.  I may say, from the powers that be, in my view, women were very much better than men for the work.  Women, as you must know, have a far greater capacity for cool and lonely courage than men.  Men usually want a mate with them.  Men don't work alone, their lives tend to be always in company with other men.  There was opposition from most quarters until it went up to Churchill, whom I had met before the war.  He growled at me, "What are you doing?".  I told him and he said, "I see you are using women to do this," and I said, "Yes, don't you think it is a very sensible thing to do?" and he said, "Yes, good luck to you"  That was my authority.

For the first 8 months of the mission, Pearl worked as a courier, delivering coded messages by bicycle to radio operators in the Southern Loire region.  Her work was extremely dangerous, and, needless to say, Workers Compensation was not an option.   On one occasion, after a 50 mile bike ride, she had to cross a bridge which she found to be heavily guarded by German soldiers.  So she went down the river and waded through waist deep freezing water holding the bicycle over her head to get to the other side.  After her squadron leader Maurice Southgate was captured by the Germans in May, 1944, Pearl found herself in charge of 1500 Resistance fighters, known as the "Wrestler" network, which she reorganized with deadly efficiency.  She had to change identities, and her new codename was "Pauline."

With the help of an old friend, local operative Henri Cornioley, who had escaped from a German POW camp, she built it up to over 2,000 men whom she trained and armed.  In one battle, her group held off 2,500 German troops with only 150 men.  Pearl escaped through a cornfield.  By and large the locals were accommodating to her, sometimes getting her out of tough scrapes with the Germans.  But whenever she requested a glass of water, they insisted on serving her wine.

Her "wrestler" network became so successful that the Germans put a 1 million franc bounty on her head.  Her group blew up 800 stretches of the railway line, disrupting German supply routes to Paris shortly after D-Day.  After D-Day, and the Allies were advancing, 18,000 German troops gave themselves up as POW's to her network.

The Germans were turning up the heat, and Pearl and Henri escaped to England while the going was good.  They got married shortly thereafter in October, 1944 and lived happily ever after until Henri's death in 1999.

Because of the wonders of bureaucracy, Pearl was declared ineligible for the Military Cross medal because women were not eligible for the medal.  She was instead awarded the civil MBE (Member of British Empire).  The feisty Pearl returned the medal with a note saying she did not deserve it as she had done nothing civil.  "Why should secret agents who risked their lives be treated like someone who sat behind a desk during the war."  Sixty years later, in 2004, at the British Embassy in Paris, justice was done, and the Queen presented Pearl with a CBE (Commander British Empire) which is an even more prestigious award than she had hoped for.

One other bureaucratic problem:  in WWII, Parachute Wings (insignia of the Parachute Regiment) were given to soldiers after 4 training jumps and one operational one.  The women of the SOE completed 3 training jumps before being parachuted into France.  So she didn't get that medal either--"sorry you didn't do 5 jumps!"  That part had a happy ending, however.  She finally got that award in 2006 when she was 92.  But she had to jump out of an airplane again.  Actually, I was just kidding about that part.

In 1946, Pearl was invited to travel to the U.S. to give a series of speeches about England's role during WWII.  In Columbus, Ohio, there was a large German community, but nobody had warned her.  While she was speaking, she could feel some discomfort.  After the talk, one man asked her, "Do you think all Germans are like that?'  To get out of it she said, "I don't know.  I only saw Nazis!"

The definitive biography of Ms. Witherington was called Pauline and was written by a Frenchman, Herve Larroque.  Unfortunately, the book is available only in French.  Since I don't speak French, I relied on English translations of bits and pieces.  Pearl's parting conclusion in the book was:

I hope this testimony will help young people get over problems and difficulties that happen in any life.  Never lose hope, never give in, because life will not make things easy, but it knows how to reward those who approach it conscientiously, bravely and with determination. 

Words well spoken by a true hero.