Monday, August 13, 2012

Let's Talk Dives...

Ladies and gentlemen pull up a chair - or rather a bar stool - as the subject of this month's missive is...dives. No, not that kind. I know the Olympics just ended and this is supposed to be a sports-related blog, but I mean real dives. The kind of place that you might not bring your parents or a first date to, but which otherwise fits you like a glove. A really comfortable, tipsy glove. Every one's definition of what makes a good dive is different, but here's my criteria: 1. It must be relatively cheap. 2. It must be free of pretension. It is exactly what it is - no more, no less. 3. It must be immune to gentrification or hipsterization (ok, I made that word up, but it describes a real social ill). 4. It must attract characters - both as patrons and employees. 5. (and this one is really important): It must make both regulars and newcomers feel welcome.

I happen to be in Los Angeles while I write this, so I will discuss two of my favorite L.A. dives, Chez Jay's in Santa Monica, and the HMS Bounty in Koreatown. I discovered each of these joints quite by accident and have returned to both countless times and have never been disappointed. First, Chez Jay. I first stumbled into this little seafood shack across from Santa Monica pier in the early 90s, but Jay's has been serving stiff drinks and seafood to folks since locals pronounced a hard "g" in "Los Angeles". I will never forget the way owner Jay Fiorendella greeted me at the Dutch door entryway the first time, resplendent in a suit with open-necked shirt - with the words "Hello, I'm Jay". (OK, not very dive-like, but bear with me). The crunch of peanuts and sawdust on the floor, red and white checked tablecloths, and seafairing bric-a-brac on the walls sets the mood. A bar takes up most of the space on the left side. The food here will never receive a Michelin star, but it's quite serviceable (the Steak Sinatra is my personal favorite), and when combined with the low lighting and 1960s ambience (I'm talking Mad Men 60s, not Haight-Ashbury 60s) more than makes up for any lack of haute cuisine aspirations. On one of my early visits I was chatting with Jay when he pointed to a  stool a few yards away. "See that chair?", he said. "That's where Angie Dickinson would wait for a call from Peter Lawford telling her where to go meet Jack." (That's Jack, as in Kennedy. The young president was also rumored to favor the private back room for trysts). On my last visit, in October, I was saddened to learn that Jay had passed away a few years ago. But the place was still going strong. Steak Sinatra was still on the menu, and the same faded UCLA pennants were on the wall, next to the ancient metal diving suits. The jukebox shuffled from Chuck Berry to Roy Orbison to Steppenwolf. The lovely bartender was cracking wise, and when a hipster asked for an "energy drink" we all held our collective breath. "This is a bar, honey", was all she said. It sure is.

Note: I just read that wrong-headed civic planners (read "morons") are trying to have Chez Jay's replaced by a more tourist and family friendly restaurant (as if Santa Monica doesn't have enough of those). Read about it here.

I had the pleasure of discovering the HMS Bounty more recently when I started using Koreatown as my base during my L.A business trips. This stretch of Wilshire Blvd. is a treat for Los Angeles history buffs. The famed Brown Derby restaurant was next door, and the Ambassador Hotel, site of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination in 1968 was across the street, as was the Coconut Grove nightclub. Founded in 1948, the Bounty was at different times a haven for sports bookies, and one of L.A.'s great pick-up bars (due to all the single gals living in the nearby apartment buildings in the 1960s). The Bounty itself is nestled in the lovely art deco Gaylord Apartment building, still home to aspiring actors and other interesting Angelenos of all stripes. Baseball games play on flatscreen TV's in the corners, but this is the Bounty's only concession to modernity. Another nautically-themed establishment (a thing with me, I guess), the HMS Bounty attracts an interesting combination of lower show biz life, hipsters, and Gaylord residents. I was there on a Monday night recently and the place was crawling with old jazzmen talking shop. If you squint in the light of the nautical lanterns you will see photos on the wall of long-forgotten sax players ("Corky Corcoran - Sensational Young Tenor Star - Endorses Conn Saxophones"), or 1940s entertainers like the Harry James Orchestra. The great jukebox follows suit, with selections by Dean Martin, Glenn Miller, and Artie Shaw. For serious diners, there is a separate formal dining room, which is rarely used. I prefer to take my meals at the bar or at one of the big banquettes in the same room. Best of all, the bartenders and servers always seem to be having as much fun as the patrons. When nature calls (which it surely will after your third gin and tonic), one steps through a side door into the ornate lobby of the Gaylord where the public facilities are located. One can meander (or stumble) back toward the HMS while appreciating the fine architectural details as well as the historic photographs of the building (so you can get your buzz on and your culture in one setting). I was just there before writing this, and I'm going back tomorrow.

What are some of your favorite dives? Let me know and maybe I'll post some of them (or better yet, visit). Until next time, pass the nuts.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Goodbye To Our Friend Mr. Surkin

I received a phone call early in May from my dear friend and sometime mentor, sometime competitor, Peter Capolino. Peter founded Mitchell & Ness Nostalgia Co. in Philadelphia around the same time that Lisa and I were starting up EFF, and I suppose it was inevitable that the only two lunatics attempting to re-create a dead athletic apparel product at precisely the same time when the entire U.S. manufacturing base was in serious decline get together. We all became fast friends in those early, heady days, and often shared resources and knowledge. (More on that friendship at another time). Peter was calling to tell me that Martin Surkin, owner for many decades of Maple Manufacturing Company was not long for this world, and that perhaps I should call him and say my goodbyes. I had not spoken to Mr. Surkin in several years, and he sounded initially distant and somewhat confused by my call, though he fortunately soon realized who I was, and we had a pleasant, though brief, chat. I was grateful that I had a chance to express my thanks to him and tell him how much he meant to us.

Back in the late 1980s when we decided to start a baseball clothing company there were still a number of old time manufacturers who made the very items from the "golden age" of athletic apparel we were trying so hard to emulate in our business. My first caps, for example, were made by a little company in Boston's Chinatown who used to deliver the Red Sox hats right to the clubhouse at Fenway. There were still a few woolen mills and jacket makers around (all gone now), and I visited or called all of them in the first years of EFF's existence, soaking up every bit of knowledge I could. Maple was one such company, and I met Martin Surkin and his sister Pearl through Peter, who was using Maple to make all of his flannel baseball jerseys at the time. Mr. Surkin had acquired Passon Sporting Goods around 1933. Its founder, Harry Passon, was instrumental in outfitting the many black and Jewish athletic teams in the Philadelphia area and was also a co-founder (with Eddie Gottlieb) of the Philadelphia SPHAs professional basketball team.

Going to Maple was always a bit of an adventure. The company - on Noble Street in the Callowhill section of Philadelphia - was in the Art Deco Lasher Building. What once had been a beautiful, modern edifice was now a crumbling relic. The elevator ride to Maple's offices and factory was a bit creepy, and on my ride up to the fourth floor I always felt vaguely like I was traveling through ghosts of Philadelphia's industrial past, which in a way I was. Although once in the confines of Maple it was perfectly fine, by the 1990s neither the building nor the neighborhood were places one would want to linger after dark.

Mr. Surkin - I could never quite bring myself to call him "Martin", it seemed almost disrespectful - was an interesting man. He walked with a pronounced limp (a vestige of childhood polio), carried a cane, and smoked a pipe. He never married. He lived with his sisters Natalie (who passed away before I met him) and Pearl, who did Maple's bookkeeping. On his desk was always a jar of pretzels. He seemed to have no hobbies or vices other than buying himself a new Cadillac every year, and going to DiNardo's on Race Street for steaks or crab nearly every night. He was the first person I knew who watched his stock portfolio on a computer. He was thoughtful, very intelligent, enjoyed a good joke, but did not suffer fools gladly. To me he was a wise old sage, and I would pester him questions about how things were done in the good old days. I always got the impression he must have been somewhat amused that these younger people had so much fascination for something that to him must have been old hat.

Pearl handled the bookkeeping, and she was a character in her own right. Under five feet tall, with a cigarette dangling from her mouth, and enough hairspray to turn her head into a silver helmet, she could play the sweet Jewish grandmother. But if you crossed her (especially if you owed Maple money) she could be tough as nails. Her worst insult was "oh go sit on a tack!" And she meant it.

Martin and Pearl Surkin

Mr. Surkin may have seemed like a kindly grandfather at times, but he could be very tough about business. Throughout much of the 1990s, we made David Letterman's annual big Christmas gift to staff and friends, which was always a varsity style wool and leather jacket. These jackets went to famous friends like Johnny Carson and Tom Hanks, as well as to the show staff. Dave himself took an active role in the design each year, often designing and re-designing the jacket right up until the point of production. This order was a big deal for us - both financially and for the prestige we gained from it. One particular year, it must have been around 1994, we had Maple make the Letterman jackets, and as Christmas approached, we grew concerned about Maple's delivery. This concern was heightened when Dave's personal assistant Laurie Diamond called me (almost never good to pick up the phone and have "Diamond", as she liked to call herself, on the other end). She was clearly alarmed that the jackets were not going to make it in time, and franly,  so was I. No Christmas jackets meant no $50,000 payment, which funded the company through the first slow post-holiday months; a very disappointed David Letterman, and one very pissed off Laurie Diamond. I made a call to Mr. Surkin. Ebbets Field had a bit of an overdue balance to Maple at the time, and Mr. Surkin made it clear that without us becoming current on that balance, he could not assure us that the David Letterman Christmas order would have priority in his production schedule. Not having the cash on hand, I explained that when we got paid for the Letterman jackets we would have plenty of money to pay our back balance, and how it would adversely affect my business if we were to not deliver these jackets on time, but Mr. Surkin was unmoved: The jackets "might" make it, or they might not. No guarantees, when I guarantee was what I desperately needed.

I made a snap decision to take the red eye that very night to Philadelphia and try to take charge of the situation. For a week I trudged into the Noble St. factory at 9 AM with the rest of the employees. Mr. Surkin neither hindered nor helped me. Early on I figured out who made things happen in the factory and made sure I became friendly with the people who would decide my fate - or at least my relationship with my biggest and most important customer. I begged, pleaded, and cajoled Maple's employees to push my jackets through the production line. I pressed jackets, trimmed threads, counted garments, and packed them into boxes. This being a Union shop, perhaps the worse thing was seeing boxes of jackets nearly ready for Fedex at 5 PM, but when 5 o'clock struck, the shipper put his hands down, even though five more minutes of taping boxes shut would have meant dozens of Letterman Christmas jackets going out that day instead of the next. The situation was not made better by periodic phone calls from Laurie Diamond, who had somehow tracked me down at Maple, demanding progress reports and assurances. I dealt with all the pressure by copious drinking in the evenings with a few sympathetic Mitchell & Ness employees and their friends. But the next morning I would make my way through the December muck back to my work station at Maple. On my breaks I would retreat to the fortress of an office where Martin and Pearl held forth. I would eat my lunch while behind me Pearl would type Maple's invoices by hunt-and-peck method on an electric typewriter (she refused to learn to use a computer), while smoking a cigarette and carrying on a running commentary to no one in particular on the quality of their customers. "Six jackets," tap-tap, drag, puff...."Like he's doing us a favor!"...TAP, TAP, TAP!

The Lasher Bldg., home of Maple Mfg.

By the end of my week-long "apprenticeship" at the factory the jackets got out - barely. To add insult to injury, I missed my flight back to Seattle when the airport shuttle driver agreed to turn around at JFK and take a passenger to La Guardia when the passenger realized he was headed to the wrong airport. I capped off my trip East by spending a miserable night at an airport hotel. We paid for the Letterman jackets as well as the back balance we owed, and despite the stress this experience caused me I always respected Mr. Surkin for taking the stand he did. I knew it was just business - just like Mr. Surkin knew our decision to give the Letterman jacket order to a different supplier the following year was just business.

 We continued to use Maple periodically over the next several years, but advancing age and a changing sporting goods market meant Mr. Surkin finally had to sell Maple in the late 1990s. The new owners were full of big plans, but they ran the company into the ground almost instantly, ending over 60 years of apparel-making heritage. In the meantime Pearl passed away and Mr. Surkin eventually had to move into an assisted living facility.

Mr. Surkin passed away on May 12th, 2012 at the age of 92, a few days after our phone call. He was a friend to us, and a mentor whom I learned a great deal from. I keep a Maple catalog from 1941 on my desk and leaf through it from time to time. The rough, aged paper feels good in my hands, and the work Mr. Surkin did over 70 years ago is still an inspiration. I am a better businessman - but more importantly a better man - for having known him. 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Fits And Starts Of Baseball Integration

By now even the most casual baseball fan is familiar with the story of Jackie Robinson and his breaking of the "color line" in organized baseball. Robinson's fearlessness, temperament, grace, not to mention pure baseball ability and exciting style of play, made him the perfect symbol of the changing of the guard in the fusty world of professional baseball from the Old to the New. In Branch Rickey, we have the perfect benevolent and wise father figure, who ushered in the new age of enlightenment in the face of resistance from his less reasonable brethren - his fellow owners. Like many mythologies, the story, although over-simplified, has the power over us that it does because it is basically true. But integration in baseball did bot begin with Robinson, nor sadly, did the floodgates of goodwill and fairness toward African-American players open immediately after Robinson's heroic first seasons.

Left: Charlie Grant, or "Charlie Tokohama".

As far back as 1901, the very first year of what is considered the "modern era" of major league baseball, efforts were made to challenge - or at least circumvent - the so-called "gentleman's agreement" which barred only black players from the game. In that season John McGraw of the Baltimore Orioles (forerunners of the franchise we know today as the New York Yankees) hired one Charlie Grant, and tried to pass him off as Native American "Charlie Tokohama". When many of Grant's suspiciously non-Indian looking friends came out to the ballpark to see "Tokohama" play, McGraw's ruse was exposed, and the experiment quickly ended.

In 1916 Canadian Jimmy Claxton was briefly signed by the Oakland club of the Pacific Coast League, again using the Native American ruse, and Claxton's time with the Oaks ended as suddenly as it began. It would be 30 year before the PCL would see another black player.

The great baseball owner and raconteur Bill Veeck often stated that he tried to buy the hapless Phillies in 1943 and stock them with top Negro league stars. Although it is very easy to believe that Veeck's lively mind came up with this idea, there is scant evidence beyond Veeck's own claims to suggest he ever tried to go through with it.

The big bats of the Washington Homestead Grays.

Another story has to do with Senators owner Clark Griffith watching the Homestead Grays (who played home games in Washington) take batting practice. It didn't take much more than seeing Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard crush ball after ball out of Griffith Stadium for him to realize what kind of team the lowly Senators would be if he could sign these sluggers. But alas it was not to be.

Then there is the story told to me by Cuban baseball historian Edel Casas in Havana many years ago: Branch Rickey had been looking for that special player for some time before he eventually set his sites on Robinson. The Dodgers used to play exhibition games in Cuba and the great slugging shortstop and pitcher, the dark-skinned Cuban player Silvio Garcia went 8 for 21 against the Brooklyn club in a 1942 exhibition series. Rickey supposedly asked the Cuban the same question he would later pose to Robinson: "What will you do the first time a white player slaps your face?" Garcia's answer? "I will kill him". Needless to say, Garcia was not chosen to fulfill the role Rickey had in mind.

It should also be noted that the minor leagues - as part of organized baseball - followed the same rigid code of segregation as the majors, but there were pockets of resistance. The Provincial League of Quebec was a haven for black ballplayers during the years when the league was "independent", and therefore not subject to the strictures of organized ball. But when the league joined organized ball as a Class C circuit, the ban on black players was strictly enforced. In the South - with Jim Crow laws very much still on the books - the story was predictable. The most important loop - the Southern Association - never did integrate, a fact that partly explained its demise in 1960. When the Hot Springs Bathers tried to field two black pitchers in 1953, the club was initially ousted from the league, and a major crisis ensued for minor league baseball.

Left: Elston Howard as a Kansas City Monarch

Let's look at the majors post-1947, when one might think that after having seen Robinson succeed in the majors, and knowing full well the depth of talent available in the Negro leagues, that there would have been a rush from all sides to scoop up the best players. Yet this didn't happen. Teams like the Dodgers and Giants were very aggressive in signing black (and later Hispanic) players, and clearly benefited from the infusion of talent and excitement stars like Robinson, Satchel Paige, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron brought to their new clubs. At the other extreme, the Boston Red Sox simply found it quite impossible to find the "right" black player for over a decade. It was not until 1959 that the Bosox grudgingly brought up the frankly mediocre Pumpsie Green to "integrate" the club as its sole African-American member. The great and mighty Yankees looked far and wide before settling on Elston Howard. "The Yankees will bring up a Negro as soon as one that fits the high Yankee Standards is found", sniffed GM George Weiss. It was not until 1955 that Howard was finally found fit for pinstripes. This event was greeted by a comment from Casey Stengel too vulgar to post here, but it should be noted that Howard always said he was made to feel welcome by his Yankee teammates.

Two pioneers: Larry Doby and Jackie Robinson

Nor was each league equal in the pace of integration. Until at least the mid-1960s, the National League far outpaced the American in signings of African-American players. Cleveland (with Bill Veeck in charge) took the lead in the junior circuit by signing Newark Eagles star Larry Doby (who had to go through the same tribulations in 1947 as Robinson, with far less fanfare and without the benefit of seasoning in the minor leagues that Robinson had). The Indians also have the honor of fielding the first black manager - Frank Robinson - in 1975.

So, as we rightly celebrate Robinson and Rickey, it is appropriate to also be cognizant of the struggles before that triumphal year of 1947, and the ones that continued for too long a time after.