Saturday, November 15, 2008

The End of the Age of Innocence

Three popular figures from the 1950s recently died. Each of them contributed to the loss of innocence for a child growing up in the New York City area during that time period.

Preacher Roe, one of the "Boys of Summer" on the early 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers team, Herb Score, the Indians flash of the mid-1950s, and Jody Reynolds, author and singer of "Endless Sleep," all died within a few days of each other and all contributed in some small way to hastening the growing-up process and fostering a better understanding of the real world before there were reality shows.

Preacher Roe was a fine, lanky left hander with a 127-84 record in a 12-year career with the Dodgers, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. In 1949, Roe was 15-6 with a 2.79 ERA and pitched a 1-0 shutout in Game 2 of the World Series against the Yankees; in 1951, Roe put together one of the greatest seasons ever for a pitcher when he went 22-3 with a 3.03 ERA, and was named Pitcher of the Year (pre-Cy Young award). From 1951-53, Roe was about as unbeatable a pitcher as there was in baseball, compiling a 33-8 record, as he pitched in the days of Gil Hodges, Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider. He had been a mathematics teacher from a small town in Arkansas, and later became a butcher in the suburbs of New York, and he seemed to have no pretensions. But perhaps he is best known for his assortment of pitches which he later admitted to have included a spitball (the ‘Beech-Nut slider’). He retired from the game in 1954, and revealed in Sports Illustrated on July 4, 1955 that he threw the spitter for seven years, and hoped that it would be legalized. For a child, this revelation was hard to take especially from the Preacher, a rural school teacher.

Herb Score, was the next great left-hander, who began his career in the majors in 1955, when he went 16 and 10 and struck out 245 batters, a rookie record that stood for 29 years, until Dwight Gooden broke it with the New York Mets in an era of wild swingers. Score was the first first-year pitcher to reach 200 Ks since Grover Cleveland Alexander did it 44 years earlier. Score was named the American League Rookie of the Year in 1955.

The next year he was even better, going 20-9 and leading the league in strikeouts for the second straight year. Herb Score was considered the toughest lefty faced by Ted Williams and had phenomenal potential when his career was altered after being hit in the right eye in May 1957 by a wicked line drive off the bat of Gil McDougald. McDougald, who was in tears after the game, tried to see him the next day, along with teammates Berra and Hank Bauer, but the hospital did not permit visitors.

Score returned to the mound with much fanfare in '58, but he had only a 2-2 record when he was put on the disabled list with a sore elbow on July 18. The next year, Score managed to win nine games and lose five before the All Star break, but he was not pitching with his old dominance. He did not win another game that season, finishing 9-11 as the Indians wound up second, and he was never the same. Score became a legendary Indians sportscaster until retirement in 1997. Score had a friendly, folksy way of calling a baseball game, and he did that with the enthusiasm of a man who felt blessed to be in baseball. Score refused to feel sorry for himself and disliked sympathetic articles that pictured him as a victim because of McDougald's liner. "I'm a lucky fellow," he said. "I'm glad God gave me the ability to throw a baseball well for a few years. That drive could have killed me."

For me, the line drive hit sharply by Gil McDougald that had a serious impact on the life and career of such a promising superstar as Herb Score, was one of those moments of realization that broke through the youthful innocence of the times. Even though I heard of Carl Mays' fatal pitch to Ray Chapman in August of 1920, that seemed (to a child of the late 1950's at least) like a remote historical footnote that could be put safely into baseball's more brutal and rudimentary past. But to that same child of the 50s, the McDougald inadvertent line drive back at Herb Score signaled that baseball could be a destructive, more-serious game with life-threatening events; it was no longer just the children's game played by "the boys of summer" in semi-pastoral stadiums or in the residential streets of Northern New Jersey.

The death of Jody Reynolds at 75 reminds me of another moment of deliverance from the innocence of youth in the 50s. This singer/songwriter, the one-hit Jody Reynolds, was inspired by Elvis' "Heartbreak Hotel (HH)," and wrote one of the early rock songs of teen tragedy. The Reynolds song led to Mark Dinning's "Teen Angel," Ray Peterson's "Tell Laura I Love Her," Johnny Preston's "Running Bear," the Everly Brothers' "Ebony Eyes," Dickey Lee's "Patches," the Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack," and ultimately "Last Kiss," a song written and recorded by Wayne Cochran (with his C.C. Riders) in 1962, and covered successfully by J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers, and more recently by Pearl Jam.

Reynolds loved the desolate quality of the Elvis' HH story and the echoing vocal, and came up with a potentially darker tale, about a boy in search of his girlfriend after a fight, with even more echoey vocals.

"The night was black, rain fallin' down
Looked for my baby, she's nowhere around
Traced her footsteps down to the shore
'fraid she's gone forever more..."

The ballad begins with emotion-riden electric guitar chords and introduces Reynolds' voice double-tracked and soaked with echo, all contributing to the foreboding atmosphere. His voice was rated as somewhere "between Presley's sad-sexy drawl and Ricky Nelson's boy-next-door conversational style."

The song as originally written was rejected by several pop record labels as too depressing. Reynolds sent a demo version to Los Angeles-based Demon Records (with the pitchfork on the label), which liked it, but persuaded Reynolds to tack on a happy ending in which the guilt-ridden boy finds his girl in the waves, and lifts her in his arms and carries her back safely to shore.

The first time I heard "Endless Sleep" I was taken by it's uniquely echoing guitar and vocal sound, and the possibility that rock could move from its generally upbeat, but occasionally bluesy sounds, to a more teenage-tragic dark side. And another part of the innocence of youth was brushed aside.