Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Perfect Game – A review

William Winokur wrote a wonderful book about a seemingly impossible true story of how a little league baseball team won a world championship

Imagine yourself being a teenager in Monterrey, Mexico where the possibilities for a rewarding life appear to be remote at best.  The available jobs are in steel and glass where the work environment is excruciatingly hot, and the pay is barely enough to feed a family. 

However, children tend to have dreams that can be more powerful than the reality adults expose them to.  A few teenagers in Monterrey, Mexico in the year 1957 had dreams of being professional baseball players.  They identified with players like Sandy Koufax and Stan Musial.  But there was a problem.  They appeared to have no resources.

Preparing for the Little League

Then, they discovered Cesar Faz who once had a job cleaning locker rooms for the St Louis Cardinals.  Faz never had a chance at a coaching job in the majors because of his Mexican heritage. 

However, the young people from Monterrey wanted nothing more than Faz to be their coach.  The problem was that Cesar Faz had a grueling job in a glass factory and the young baseball players had no field to practice.  These were not insurmountable obstacles.

The young players from Monterrey cleared a field of rocks, weeds, and junk so they could practice.  Cesar Faz was inspired by the determination of these youngsters.  He agreed to coach the team and entered them in the little league championships that would take place in about four weeks. 

However, there were more obstacles.  The team would need funding in a town where workers barely had enough resources to eat.  The team would have four weeks to practice for a competition against the best teams in the little leagues. 

In order to play in their first game, the team would have to walk ten miles from the Mexican border to McAllen, Texas.  Norberto Villarreal cut his foot in Monterrey before the long walk.  He walked the entire distance with this injured foot because he didn’t want to be cut from the team.

Although Cesar Fax trained his team well, he didn’t think they had a chance to win  their first game.  He made arrangements with his girlfriend to meet her family after he expected his team to loose.  But they won that game.  The team continued to win in Texas.  The press in that state wanted their teams to get even with Mexico for the defeat of Texas in the fortress called the Alamo.

The Mexican children become champions

The little league team from Monterrey continued to surmount all the seemingly insurmountable challenges on and off the field.  They made it to the final game that they would play against the team from La Mesa, California.  La Mesa had been demolishing all their opponents by many runs.  La Mesa’s players were about five inches taller than the players from Monterrey. 

The workers of Monterrey had become inspired by the accomplishments of their little league team.  Hundreds of workers went on a candle light march to the owner of the steel mill.  They informed this owner that they would be taking an afternoon off in order to listen to the game between La Mesa and Monterrey.

La Mesa proved to be a worthy adversary and Monterrey was held scoreless for four innings.  However, Angel Macias was pitching a perfect a perfect game against the hard-hitting team from La Mesa.
Then, in the fifth inning Monterrey broke the game open and scored four runs.  On the final out Angel Macias pitched three consecutive balls.  Cesar Faz walked to the mound and had a talk with his pitcher.  He complained that this was the first time he needed to wake up from his nap during the game. 

After this talk, Macias threw three strikes and the game was over.  This was the only perfect game in the history of the little leagues.  We should also mention that Enrique Suarez was the other pitcher who contributed to this championship.

The team then had meetings with the presidents of the United States and Mexico.  However, one of their most thrilling moments after their victory was when they viewed a Brooklyn Dodgers game and met with the players.

Back in Monterrey, the team was greeted by 500,000 fans in one of the most momentous events in the history of the city.  The Mexican government gave every member of the team lifetime scholarships to continue their education.  Unfortunately many players needed to care for their families and this made it impossible for these players to take advantage of their scholarships.

This story is particularly relevant today when the United States government has a wall aimed at preventing Mexican people from immigrating to the United States.  The story of The Perfect Game demonstrates that in a fair game young people from the United States and Mexico can not only compete, but they are capable of inspiring people throughout the world.

The Perfect Game

Published by Kissena Park Press

Copyright 2008 by William Winokur

This book was made into the 2010 film The Perfect Game directed by William Dear.



Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Washington is responsible for the deaths and destruction in Palestine

Today, we are witnessing one of the most horrific events of our times.  The Israeli military is conducting a full-fledged war against civilians in the Gaza Strip.  After there have been 1,850 deaths from this war, the Israeli government has declared a temporary truce.  While other wars have claimed many more casualties, this war is different in that it is against a civilian area that is occupied by Israel.

Newark, New Jersey 1967

In 1967, I was fourteen years old.  The National Guard in this country invaded my hometown of Newark, New Jersey.  Rebellions like the one in Newark erupted in cities and towns across the country. 

That fall I started high school.  On the bus ride to school for the next four years, I saw the ruins of the 1967 rebellion in Newark.  While my experience was completely different from the one in Palestine, this event made a lifelong impression on me.  Soldiers who were being paid with tax dollars murdered twenty people and hundreds were arrested.

At the same time as this event was unfolding, the United States ordered the armed forces to murder millions of people in Southeast Asia.  While all of this was happening my teachers asked us to pledge allegiance to a flag that claimed to represent “liberty and justice for all.”   

Why does the United States support Israel?

Anyone who knows anything about Israel’s war knows that the United States government gives Israel about three billion dollars every year.  The U.S. also gives Israel and immense amount of military aid that makes its current war possible.  Understanding this, we know that if U.S. government demanded that Israel end this war, the war would be over.  To the contrary, the U.S. government is in full support of Israel’s war against Palestinians.

We might ask a basic question.  In the United States the standard of living is deteriorating on a number of fronts.  Many schools have closed down.  Wage increases have not kept pace with prices.  Unemployment is at its highest point since the depression.  Many people find it difficult or impossible to receive proper medical care.  So, why has the United States government been giving Israel, a nation of about eight million people, billions of dollars every year?

While the politicians and pundits have pontificated about the reasons for this funding for years, we need only one three-letter word to answer this question.  That one word is oil.  Without a continuous flow of oil no corporation in the United States has even one dime of profit.  Without oil, workers wouldn’t be able to go to their jobs.  Without oil, commodities wouldn’t be delivered to market.  Without oil, engines would not be lubricated. 

In the United States, money talks.  Without a continuous flow of oil, corporations would have no profits.  Most of the oil in the world is located in northern Africa and in the Middle East.  Israel is located in the center of this region.

The energy policies of the capitalist world mean that in about fifty years the reserves of oil will begin to run out.  This will have unimaginable consequences for working people and farmers in the world.

Why does Israel exist?

The state of Israel, as well as the apartheid state of South Africa, were both established in the year 1948.  Before 1948 Britain was the world’s superpower and ruled the world through its colonies and its economic influence.  After the Second World War the United States became the world’s super-power.  Israel and South Africa followed the reality of the United States at that time.

In 1948 Native Americans had lost their lands and the government sent them to live on reservations.  African Americans did not have full citizenship rights because of the legal system of Jim Crow segregation.

The South African system of apartheid stripped the original inhabitants of that area from their land.  The apartheid laws denied black people full citizenship rights in their homeland.  Bantustans became the new homeland for many whose land had been stolen. 

The Israeli government seized hundreds of Palestinian towns and villages and evicted the inhabitants.  In an area where over ninety percent of the land was occupied by Palestinians, Israel became a so-called homeland for Jewish people.  While the West Bank and Gaza Strip have Palestinian governments, Israel continues to occupy this land.

Unlike South Africa, Israel has completely relied on foreign assistance for its very survival.  Without an enormous amount of military aid, Israel never would have become a nation.

Israel serves U.S. corporations

We can see how Israel serves U.S. corporations in the current war against Palestinians.  About a year ago the entire Arabic world erupted in what has been called the Arab Spring.  In nation after nation workers and farmers challenged corrupt dictatorships.  The Arab Spring erupted as the United States military was ending its war against the people of Iraq.

Today, Israel is conducting its genocidal war against Palestinians.  While the people of this region have legitimate grievances against the governments of that region, today Israel is viewed as the pariah state. 

The Egyptian government has carried out a brutal repression against anyone who opposes its rule.  This is after Egypt was the center of the Arab Spring.  Now Egypt is working in concert with Israel in closing its border to the Gaza Strip.  The Egyptian military also receives billions of dollars in support from the United States every year.

While all of this is happening, oil continues to flow into the United States, Europe, China, and Japan.  Billionaire capitalists continue to reap obscene profits from the flow of this oil.  They are completely indifferent to the deaths and destruction in the Gaza Strip.  These are some of the reasons why Israel receives billions of dollars in aid every year.

An injury to one is an injury to all

In the United States Jews and Palestinians have certain rights.  They have the right to own land, the right to travel, the right to vote, and the right to own firearms.  The reason why Israel has become a pariah state is because it denies Palestinians the same rights they have in the United States.  This is the source of this conflict.

Chief Joseph was a leader of the Native American nation known as the Nez Perce.  Chief Joseph understood what it meant for his people to have their land stolen and to loose all human rights.  He made the following statement that became the anthem for today's American Indian Movement.  I believe the Palestinian people would also support these words.

"Let me be a free man, free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to talk, think, and act for myself - and I will obey every law or submit to the penalty."  

Workers in this country have the same basic interests as workers in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and in Israel.  The current war against Gaza is about denying the Palestinian people the right to live.  This war against civilians is being conducted in the most densely populated area of the world.  This is a clear attack on workers who live in every nation in the world.

In this country we have an opportunity to have a real impact in making it more difficult for Israel to conduct its war.  Millions of people in this country are horrified by what is happening in the Gaza Strip.  We can protest against the federal government by raising the demand of No More Aid To Israel. 

Massive demonstrations can be organized that can shift the political discussion in this country.  While politicians are committed to robbing the people of the Middle East of the immense wealth created by oil, working people have different priorities.  Our priority is for everyone to have the means to live.  We have no interest in denying Palestinians their basic rights.

We have learned that Washington’s support for war only means more war.  The wars against the people of Newark, Vietnam, and Gaza have one basic goal.  This is to support the profit drive of corporations.  My opinion is that human needs are more important than profits. 


Friday, August 1, 2014

Robert Stroud – The Birdman of Alcatraz

A review of the 1962 film

Directed by John Frankenheimer

Starring Burt Lancaster and Karl Malden

Based on the book by Thomas E. Gaddis

One of my favorite movies of all time is the Birdman of Alcatraz.  The theme of the film is the contrast between the horrors of the prison system in this country, and the potential of even the most hardened prisoners to regain their dignity.  I’ve looked at the available information about the true-life character of Robert Stroud.  Looking at this information makes the true-life story even more compelling than the film.

Background to the story

Robert Stroud ran away from home at the age of thirteen because of an alcoholic and abusive father.  At the age of nineteen he confronted someone who assaulted the woman he lived with.  A struggle ensued, and Stroud acknowledged that he murdered his companion’s assailant.

We might keep in mind a few things about this incident that occurred Alaska in 1909.  In those years Alaska was a part of the “wild west.”  Personal conflicts often lead to gunfire. 

A newly appointed judge named E.E. Cushman presided over the murder case of Stroud.  This so-called judge wanted to make a name for himself as someone who would not tolerate criminal activity.  Since Alaska was not a state at this time, Cushman acted as federal judge and jury.  He convicted Stroud of manslaughter and sentenced him to twelve years in prison.

A double standard of justice

We might consider that at this time thousands of Black people had been lynched in this country, and the government almost never prosecuted these murderers.  This trial also came after the United States effectively stole the Philippines from the people of that nation.  This war resulted in about 250,000 deaths.  

The hundred-year war by the U.S. government against Native Americans concluded in the massacre at Wounded Knee.  During this war, top officials of the U.S. government called for the complete extermination of all Native Americans.  Clearly, all of these murders were perfectly legal in this country.  Therefore, when judges who represent the United States claim they are for law and order, they are merely stating that they will prosecute some crimes and not others.

Eugene Debs was a socialist who lived during the same years as Stroud.  Debs served time in prison for supporting striking workers and for giving a speech opposed to World War I.  Debs had this to say about federal judges:

“There is something wrong in this country; the judicial nets are so adjusted as to catch the minnows and let the whales slip through, and the federal judge is as far removed from the common people as if he inhabited another planet.”

The horrors of prison life

From his first days in prison, Stroud was justifiably enraged by the regulations prison guards forced him to obey.  One of the prison guards, Andrew F. Turner, routinely beat prisoners for minor infractions.  Turner prevented Stroud from seeing his brother who travelled a long distance for a visit.  This action by Turner was a response to a minor infraction.

A struggle ensued because of this issue and Andrew F. Turner lost his life.  Apparently there was at least one witness who was willing to testify that Stroud acted in self-defense.  This witness was a prisoner who was not allowed to testify. 

There were a series of trials that charged Stroud with murder.  In one, Stroud was found guilty and given life in prison.  He appealed that sentence.  Against the wishes of Stroud, his lawyers acknowledged that he committed manslaughter.  He was convicted of murder again and sentenced to death.  The Supreme Court supported this verdict.

Stroud’s mother appealed to President Wilson who commuted his sentence to life in prison.  Wilson’s Attorney General Alexander Mitchel Palmer saw to it that Stroud would spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement.  Palmer also was known for his “Palmer Raids,” where he rounded up hundreds of immigrant workers for deportation.   

Solitary confinement

At this point in his life Stroud might have felt that his life was over.  Yet he began to take correspondence courses, used the library, and learned to draw.  He earned some money by making post cards.   He gave his earnings to his mother. 

Then, during one day when he was taking his one-hour walk alone in the prison yard, he discovered a fallen nest of sparrows.  Burt Lancaster in the film Birdman of Alcatraz gave a compelling performance of how these birds began to transform the life of Robert Stroud.

Stroud began to read all he could about the care of birds.  Lacking basic tools, Stroud managed to build cages for his birds by joining every piece together by hand.  Eventually, Stroud attained some parakeets, learned to breed his birds, and sold them.

The prison authorities had a good reason for allowing Stroud to keep his birds.  Solitary confinement is the most severe punishment a prisoner will endure.  For this reason the section of the Leavenworth Prison reserved for solitary confinement was a place where the frustration of prisoners erupted. 

When Robert Stroud introduced his birds into this section of the prison, there were significantly less conflicts with the guards.  In fact, prison officials conducted tours of the solitary wing to show how well they controlled the prisoners.

Eventually, Robert Stroud attained a microscope and became an expert in all facets of the care of birds.  With only a third grade education, he published two books on the subject and became known as a leading ornithologist in the world.  When his birds began dying of a then incurable disease, Stroud invented a cure.  This cure would save the lives of thousands of birds whose owners used Stroud’s treatment.

The battle for Stroud’s birds

Clearly Stroud became a completely different person from the one who first entered the prison system.  Given this reality, a rational person would think the penal authorities would have learned something from Stroud’s transformation.  This was not the case.  Prison authorities made a concerted effort to take away Stroud’s birds and send him to the prison called Alcatraz.

Although he was in solitary confinement, Stroud launched a temporarily successful campaign that allowed him to keep his birds.

Della Mae Jones was intrigued by Stroud’s writings on birds.  She visited him in Leavenworth, and worked to promote a business where he sold birds and cures for the diseases of birds. 

When the prison authorities attempted to take way Stroud’s birds, Jones and Stroud’s mother circulated a petition demanding that Stroud be able to keep his birds.  50,000 supporters signed this petition.  The prison authorities not only allowed Stroud to keep his birds, they gave him an additional cell where he could do his work.

The authorities made another attempt to send Stroud to Alcatraz.  Stroud found an old law on the books that prevented sending prisoners out of the state who were married to someone living in Kansas.  Della Mae Jones agreed to marry Stroud and again the prison authorities were stymied.

Finally, in the middle of the night, the prison authorities came into Stroud’s cell and transferred him to the prison at Alcatraz.  Clearly Stroud had become rehabilitated from the person he was when he entered prison.  Clearly Stroud’s work with birds was proving to be important to thousands of people. 

However, the government of the United States has a history of lynch mob justice.  Once someone is convicted a crime, all the government is interested in is punishment. 

The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution clearly outlaws slavery, “except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”  In other words, once a person is placed behind bars, the government of the United States supports the most horrendous punishments, and is completely indifferent to any form of rehabilitation.

Stroud’s history of prisons

At Alcatraz Robert Stroud developed a new interest.  He began work on his two-thousand page book titled: A History of the U.S. Prison System from Colonial Times to the formation of the Bureau of Prisons.  In this book, Stroud wrote about the brutality, sex, bribery, and the monumental failure of the prison system to rehabilitate inmates.  He wrote that: “To sadistic minded persons helplessness is always an invitation to cruelty.”

The prison authorities would not allow this book to be released.  A lawyer by the name of Dudley Martin took on Stroud’s case free of charge.  Thirty years after Stroud’s death the first part of his book was published.

Who would have been better qualified to write a book about the history of prisons than Robert Stroud.  Stroud spent 42 years of his life in solitary confinement.  Even after he became world famous for his study of birds, the penal authorities continued his incarceration.  After 29 years in prison the authorities denied Stroud a parole. 

In his book on the history of prisons, Stroud acknowledged that he was gay.  Imagine the courage it took to make this statement and to write this book.

Today, in the four major sports of football, basketball, baseball, and hockey only one or two athletes have acknowledged that they are gay.  Stroud was a prisoner who was at the mercy of guards and prisoners who might take advantage of him because he stood up to the authorities.  Yet he made his stand.

Today anyone who lives in the United States has a better chance of going to prison than citizens of any other nation in the world.  (An exception to this statement might be found in the West Bank and Gaza Strip where about 3.5 million Palestinians live in a effective prison.)  The U.S. might be the only nation where entire prisons known as Super-Max are entirely dedicated to solitary confinement.

Yes the story of Robert Stroud continues to be relevant today.  When the history of the United States is written by rational people, there will be a chapter on the life of Robert Stroud.  This will be the story of someone who was convicted of murder and then became a world renown ornithologist.  The U.S. government responded to Stroud’s example by keeping him in prison for the over 50 years.