Bill Lee

To my dad, with love, on Father’s Day

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, June 21, 2020. Above, the author as a baby with his father, Donald Walsh, and his older brother Robert.

Dad,

I wish you could stop by my house today, as you always did on Sunday mornings until the end came in 1993. I’d make a fresh pot of coffee and cue up Stephen Sondheim on an infinite jukebox we call Spotify.

Much has changed since you died.

You’d be happy to learn that your boy Sondheim celebrated his 90th birthday this year, and saddened to know that another hero of yours, George Carlin, is gone.

Remember when you played Carlin’s “Class Clown” album for me as we cleaned the gray beach house in Narragansett? I think I was 13 years old. It was the first time I heard the comedian voice his take on Muhammad Ali’s defense for not going to Vietnam — “I’ll beat ’em up, but I don’t want to kill ’em.” Thanks for showing me, in that moment and so many others, how wordplay could be powerful, insightful and funny.

You can catch most of Carlin’s bits on a cool video-sharing platform called YouTube now.

You would have loved the internet, which hosts such things. I can see you binge-watching World War II movies, clips of Bill Russell’s old Celtics teams, and the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Netflix, a movie-streaming service, has your name all over it, too. I’d like to watch “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” with you, just to hear you say, once again, that the Academy blew it, that Spielberg’s masterpiece deserved the Oscar in 1983, not “Gandhi.” You always loved the underdog.

Speaking of which, the Red Sox have won the World Series four times since you’ve been gone. What in the name of Bill Lee (another hero of yours) is going on?

Championship banners aside, though, in some ways, the world hasn’t changed much at all since 1993. As I watched the demonstrations following George Floyd’s death, I wished I knew more about your days as assistant dean of student affairs at Brown University in the mid-’60s. According to a cousin, you and Charlie Baldwin, Brown’s activist chaplain at the time, once spent a month in the South protesting with the Freedom Riders.

You continued the work when you returned home. Mom saved the letters to the editor that you wrote, advocating for civil rights and supporting the desegregation of Providence public schools, which Robert, James and I attended.

This year, from mid-March to May 25, the op-ed pages of most newspapers were “all pandemic, all the time,” as one editor put it. But after George Floyd’s death, remarkably, COVID-19 was no longer the top story. That just shows how deeply the history and hurt of racial injustice are embedded in America’s soul.

Words spoken 52 years ago by your biggest hero, Robert F. Kennedy, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., still resonate today: “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be Black.”

Your youngest grandchild, Juliana, born after you left us, marched in the Black Lives Matter demonstration in Providence a few weeks ago. On the morning of the rally, I texted her a photo of you from your days at Brown and said that you would have been proud of her. If the two of you get to meet in some celestial place, I can imagine you sharing another RFK quote with her: “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped.”

It’s hard to believe that you and I last spoke 27 years ago.

Still, every day and especially these days, you’re always with us.

Love, John

 

Funny words are par for the course

funny_words

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, May 20, 2018.

I was watching golf on television when my daughter, age 8 or 9 at the time, asked me what “par” meant.

I understood her bafflement. As a family, we had only played at courses with windmills and waterfalls; shooting par wasn’t our concern at Mulligan’s Island or Adventureland.

So, on this day, I told Julie the term denotes the number of strokes a good golfer is expected to use to sink his or her ball on any given hole. And, being a word nerd, I wondered where par came from. A quick search at the then-new etymonline.com revealed that it’s Latin for “equal,” which makes sense. When you par a hole, you equal the expected score.

Par isn’t the only peculiar term you’ll hear on PGA broadcasts. In the early 20th century, “bird” was slang for anything excellent. Hence, holing your ball at one stroke below par became known as a birdie. Keeping with the avian theme, an eagle means you beat par by two strokes, and shooting three under par on a hole is known as an albatross. The rare seabird is an apt symbol for a rare score.

Tennis serves up its share of quirky words. “Love” is the one that stands out, but it has nothing to do with romance. Rather, it means zero, as in “Rafael Nadal is up 40-love.” A popular, but unproven, etymological theory is that love is an Anglicization of the French word “l’oeuf,” which means egg, owing to an egg’s resemblance to a zero.

Baseball is in a league of its own when it comes to lingo. The uncovered seats out beyond the outfield are called bleachers because, in the late 1800s, these seats were simple board benches that got bleached by the sun. Spectators there hope to catch a ball when a batter “goes yard” and hits a home run.

If a left-hander is on the mound, we might refer to him as a “southpaw.” I like the etymological explanation that says the word was coined because baseball diamonds typically oriented home plate to the west. That meant a pitcher’s left hand (or paw) would be to the south when facing a batter. However, the term is found in earlier references to boxing, where the ring’s orientation has no relation to the sun (and a pugilist’s haymaker may leave his foe seeing stars).

Former Red Sox southpaw Bill Lee sometimes threw an Eephus pitch, which is a low-speed, high-arching junk toss designed to catch hitters off guard. The irreverent hurler’s version of the pitch, dubbed a “Leephus,” didn’t fool Tony Perez in Game 7 of the 1975 World Series. The Cincinnati slugger smashed a dinger over the Green Monster, and the Reds went on to win the game and the championship. For years afterward, Lee quipped that the ball “is still rising.”

When benches clear for a baseball brawl, it may be called a “donnybrook,” a word that derives from a so-named suburb of Dublin, Ireland. In the 19th century, an annual fair in the town was known for such rowdiness; it was said that those gathered would sooner fight than eat. Bill Lee found himself in the middle of a donnybrook with the Yankees in 1976 and paid the price: torn ligaments in his pitching arm.

Umpires had tried, futilely, to intercede in the Sox-Yankees rhubarb (a synonym of donnybrook, with “barbarism” in its linguistic DNA). The word “umpire” is related to the Old French “nompere,” which means without peer or equal. The men in blue are certainly not the equals of the players; they always have the last say.

But try telling that to the fans (likely short for “fanatics”) in the bleachers. When they disagree with an umpire, they generally have another word for him: “bum” or “idiot,” if not something a lot more colorful.

On a sunny day at Fenway, that’s just par for the course.

 

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