The Cincinnati AM Rock Radio Blues

After we moved close to Cincinnati in the summer of 1972, our cars’ AM radios, when they weren’t tuned to WLW (700) for Reds’ games, were set to WSAI (1360), through and through a Top 40 station. I was around ten when the music I was hearing began making a stronger impression. I discovered AT40 in the late winter of 1976; by then a transistor radio was an almost constant companion, and WSAI was almost always in my ear. I still recall several of the jocks’ names: most notably Jim Scott, but also John R. W. Whalen, Casey Piotrowski (who put out an album locally in 1975 that captured some of the humor on his shows), Ted McAllister (here’s a 1971 air check of McAllister’s). By early 1978, I had discovered FM radio and Top 40 powerhouse WKRQ. I wasn’t alone in transitioning away from the AM dial. That summer, WSAI began teasing a format change, to begin at 6:00 am on a Monday morning in August. I woke up early to tune in and discover: they were going country. Right or wrong, that was that for me. Top 40 radio on the AM side in Cincy went extinct, at least for the time being, that morning. Except for the Reds and listening to AT40 on WLAP out of Lexington, I pretty much became an FM-only listener.

But I guess I never quite stopped fidgeting with the dial on my portable radio. In the summer of 1982, weeks before I left for college, I found WCLU at 1320, which had at some point become a rock station with maybe a tilt toward breaking hits, especially if they had a New Wave flavor. It’s probably from them that I acquired my love for “Kids in America,” “Words,” and maybe even “Someday, Someway.” They were in on “Who Can It Be Now?” early, and were weeks ahead of the pack on “Rock This Town.” I have to believe WCLU would have been a regular listen for me going forward (even if they were daytime only) had I not moved away in September.

I don’t remember now if I tuned into them much the following summer, but they were still at it–I picked up three of their Top 60 playlists from record stores, one each in May, July, and August 1983. The first is dated thirty-seven years ago today.

There’s a much greater infusion of R&B music here than what I recall from listening in 1982, but I’d listen to this station now in a heartbeat. I imagine I’ll share the other two someday.

How long this format lasted for WCLU, I can’t tell you. The station changed its call letters to WCVG a few years later and made waves in 1988 by becoming the first station in the nation to adopt an all-Elvis format (which lasted a little more than a year). They are now known as The Voice and play a gospel format.

Both WCVG and WSAI have Wikipedia pages that attempt to capture some of their histories, if you’re interested. The station at 1360 once again has call letters WSAI (there’s a long, complicated story there that the Wiki article summarizes decently), but these days they go simply by Fox Sports 1360.

If They Don’t Win It’s A Shame

A family of four wends their way a couple of hours north to Cincinnati for a treat: the two young children, a boy and a girl, are going to their first Major League Baseball game. The parents—the father, in particular—are longtime Reds fans and are engaging in the time-honored tradition of passing ardor on to the next generation. Their seats are down the right field line; they’ve got a decent view of the towering scoreboard in left-center. Things don’t go well for the home nine that evening, who are facing decent opposition. On the bright side, one of the Reds’ stars goes deep—a moment that just might have turned him into the girl’s (she’s just four years old) favorite player.

I do remember bits and pieces of my sole visit to Crosley Field, the Reds’ home from 1912 to 1970: it was 1) a lopsided loss 2) to the Cubs in which 3) Johnny Bench, Amy’s fave, hit a HR. However, several years ago I realized I didn’t know the date of the game—my father hadn’t kept the ticket stubs (which doesn’t sound entirely like him). I hit up retrosheet.org, a site whose goal is to collect box scores and record play-by-play info for as many MLB games as possible, for some detective work. I was certain the game had to have occurred either in 1969 or 1970. The Reds’ move to Riverfront Stadium on June 30, 1970, restricted options further. Just one home game against the Cubbies fit all the criteria: a 12-5 loss on Monday, 5/18/70, fifty years ago today. I was about to wrap up kindergarten—before the month was over I’d take my star turn as the Tin Woodman in our epic production of The Wizard of Oz. My first cousin Liz, sixteen years older than I, would get married in less than three weeks. 

The timing makes sense to a good degree, as I can imagine Dad wanting to have his children experience a game in the park where he’d had so many enjoyable times across the years before it closed. The Reds were off to a fantastic start, 27-10, after sweeping a double-header against the Braves on Sunday; under the leadership of their new manager, the 36-year-old George “Sparky” Anderson, they were rapidly becoming The Big Red Machine. 

The Cubs were doing okay as well going into this tilt, tied for first with the team that had broken their hearts the previous season, the Mets. Who wouldn’t want to see these teams do battle?

I won’t do a blow-by-blow recap (here’s the boxscore/play-by-play), but I am including pix of some of the key players from my collection of 1971 Topps cards. The Cubs started Bill Hands, while the Reds countered with off-season acquisition Ray Washburn. There’s no 71 Washburn card, but I’ve got a George Culver, whom the Reds traded to St. Louis for Washburn (the Cards dealt Culver to the Astros mid-season).

That Washburn-for-Culver swap was a challenge trade of sorts: two pitchers who’d done pretty well two seasons earlier (they’d both thrown no-hitters in 1968) but had slipped a bit during the following campaign. Washburn turned out to be a disaster for the Reds. They kept him the whole season, but his ERA wound up just a shade under 7. The May 18 game was one of just three starts he received during the season, perhaps necessitated by the previous day’s twinbill. He got yanked in the second inning, after six runs crossed the plate for the Cubbies (just two earned).

These guys knocked in eight of the game’s seventeen runs. (The under-appreciated Ron Santo had four RBI.)

I also have the NL RBI leaders card, featuring the same three players (Perez and Williams switching places). While Amy rooted for Bench, early on I locked onto Perez as my favorite.

Two other stars for the Cubs that evening were 2B Glenn Beckert (4-6, 2R, 1RBI) and CF Jim Hickman (2-3, 2BB, 3R).

For the era, it was a long game, 3:08—I kinda doubt we stayed for the whole thing. Official attendance was a little more than a third of capacity, 10774.

I’ve come to realize that my memory is far from 100% reliable, so it’s possible that I’ve made some sort of error in recall, and this wasn’t the game I attended. But there’s an additional piece of evidence from Retrosheet that makes me believe this really was it. At the bottom of each page that recaps a day’s results and end-of-day standings, Retrosheet includes (if there are any), the names of any players who made either their first or final MLB appearance on that date. Here’s what I saw when I looked at 5/18/70:

I do not have any recollection of witnessing Belinsky enter the game in relief of Washburn with two outs in the bottom of the second inning. It turned out to be a pretty pedestrian performance: ten outs, four hits, two walks, three runs, all earned. He batted once, getting a hit.

But that alliterative name stirs something deep inside. It possesses a familiarity it wouldn’t have unless I’d heard it announced over the PA that night, embedding itself into a six-year-old’s subconscious, to be liberated only upon seeing it again in association with that game.

Even if I had recalled his appearance, I wouldn’t have known anything about the backstory that had led him to that moment. There’s a thorough and interesting article about Belinsky at SABR worth the time for students of the history of the game. The overarching theme is of a man who couldn’t be bothered to cultivate his talent, focusing instead on nightlife and seemingly bedding as many women as possible. A few stretches of brilliance punctuated the exasperation he incurred for GMs in Baltimore (in whose system he developed), Los Angeles (Angels—his celebrity exploded after tossing a no-no in his fourth career MLB start, in early May 1962), and Philadelphia. Very early in the morning of the day my wife was born, there was an incident that led to a lawsuit (eventually dismissed) brought by a woman who claimed Belinsky had assaulted her. He got into a scrum with a reporter. Alcohol and drugs took over his life. A passable late-season stretch of pitching for the Pirates in 1969 somehow convinced the Reds to trade for Belinsky during Spring Training in 1970 (it’s perhaps telling that Dennis Ribant, the journeyman pitcher the Reds gave up, never appeared again in the majors). May 18 was only Belinsky’s third appearance in 38 games; while he hadn’t been bad, I wouldn’t be shocked if off-the-field behavior made it easier to send him back down to AAA. He didn’t last the season in the Reds’ system. A few years later, Belinsky managed a largely successful trip through rehab and became a born-again Christian. All the abuse to which he’d subjected himself, along with some other health issues, took their toll, though—he died of a heart attack in late 2001, a couple of weeks shy of his 65th birthday.

There was no 1971 Belinsky Topps, but I do have cards of a couple of folks with some tie to him. Dean Chance was a good friend during Belinsky’s years with the Angels, both on and off the field. Chance won the 1964 AL Cy Young Award, but was also at the end of his career by the early 70s.

Rudy May was part of the return the Angels got when they traded Belinsky to the Phillies after the 64 season.

Despite the dreary outcome, the four pitchers the Reds used that night all had notable baseball accomplishments. Washburn and Belinsky had their no-hitters, Tony Cloninger had slugged two grand slams in one game, and Clay Carroll later held the NL single-season record for saves. Throw in all the eventual Hall-of-Famers on the field, and I realize now how lucky I was to be there.

Going to see the Reds during the best stretch in their history became a big part of my youth, especially after we moved to Walton, just twenty miles south of Riverfront Stadium. While I wish I had been just a little older so that I could have absorbed the ambience and fully appreciated the opportunity to be at Crosley Field, I’m grateful that I recall anything at all about it.

(Washburn also has a nice profile at SABR; he’s still with us, and will turn 82 on May 31.)

American Top 40 PastBlast, 5/4/85: Rick Springfield, “Celebrate Youth”

Submitted the last of my grades on Friday night. Doing so in any semester always feels like a burden being lifted, but the relief is greater than normal this go-round. It’s Saturday evening as I start this, and I’m totally beat. I commented earlier to Martha and Ben that it’s almost like a mild case of whiplash. Again, I know the stress for many of my students has been higher, but I am glad this most unusual semester is now in the rear-view mirror. I’d like to think I adapted reasonably well at least some of the time. I’ll debrief myself at some point; right now, though, I need some time off from thinking about the college professor life.

A part of that will be (I hope) paying more attention to this venture. There have been a few thoughts that seem partially related to one another chasing around my head over the last couple of weeks; let’s see if I shape something semi-coherent out of them.

My alma mater traditionally hosts its Alumni Weekend at the end of April (one casualty of not fielding a football team is being able to hold a Homecoming celebration in the fall). Unsurprisingly, this year’s model wound up being a virtual event. Prior to the cancellation of in-person festivities, the class of ’85 had invited the graduates from ’84 and ’86 (my year) to join in on their 35th reunion reception. Even if there aren’t (m)any folks from the class ahead of me with whom I’ve maintained contact, I would have given some consideration to attending. I’m sorry they missed their every-half-decade shot at a reunion; at this point, though, I’m wondering about the likelihood of my 35th being online, too.

There are a few artifacts from the spring of 1985 in my bin of college goodies. That May Term (Transy has a short, four-week term at the end of the year) I took Environmental Philosophy, from a faculty member in his first year. Our text was a collection of essays on environmental ethics; while I don’t seem to have the book any more, I do have the booklet from an essay exam (though not the questions) and a five-page paper I submitted on The Necessity of Establishing an Environmental Ethic. Hardly original thoughts being expressed, but I feel like maybe I had synthesized something decently in the first paragraph.

Comments by the instructor were few, but for what it’s worth, I got an A on it.

I enjoyed the class and the professor. There was a kerfuffle a couple of years later when he was denied tenure (he’d come to Transy with credit for previous service). I was in grad school by then, but was still in touch with plenty of folks still there who weren’t pleased. My understanding is that he eventually landed on his feet at a school in the Northeast.

I guess I was also on the production staff that spring for The Transylvanian, “the oldest university literary journal west of the Allegheny Mountains.” I don’t have any recollection of doing the slightest bit of work for it; I have a feeling it might be connected to having taken creative writing the previous fall. But hey, my name is there on page one for anyone who still has a copy to see.

The contents are mostly student work: poems, very short stories, sketches, etc. There are a few pieces by faculty as well. One poem was by George Ella Lyon; an adjunct at Transy at the time, she’s had several books and collections of poetry published in the decades since, and served as Poet Laureate of Kentucky five years ago. “How It Is” in part expresses the frustrations of teaching students who don’t have the same appreciation for the subject matter as the instructor. I can relate.

I also hope that Editor isn’t right in that second stanza.

I spent the last day of April 2016 at my 30th college reunion. It was an all-day affair, including a couple of afternoon receptions, a group photo (though only fifteen members of my class were there for it), and a class dinner at a downtown Italian restaurant. The weather didn’t cooperate much; it rained much of the day. Nonetheless, I had a grand time, re-establishing connections with some folks I hadn’t seen in quite a while.

The most enjoyable part of the day was getting to be with a smaller group in the morning and early afternoon. We began with a breakfast that was in part a gathering of alums from across the years who’d been recipients of a generous scholarship offered by the school. I had been in the first cohort, a group of ten. The program quickly turned into a public relations windfall for the college, expanding in subsequent years and becoming a significant factor in the growth of Transy’s enrollment throughout the latter half of the 80s. Back in the fall of 1982, though, the scholarship program was a novelty; no one quite knew what to make of it. Several of us became good friends from the start, though over time our social circles and interests diverged in various ways. By the time we graduated, fortunately it felt like we stood out less than we had at the beginning.

Five folks from that first group, now in our early fifties, were among those who sat together at the breakfast. Conversation was plenty lively. Some of it was catching up, and some of it proceeded as if the intervening years had never happened. Afterward, we wandered around campus some, celebrating our youths and reliving old glories, eventually winding up at a deli a few blocks away for lunch with James, my roomie.

Before I left the house that morning for those reunion festivities, I heard most of the opening hour of that weekend’s 80s AT40 rebroadcast; I doubt you’re surprised to learn it was 5/4/85, which got played again a week ago. Even though a show from 1983 would have been more appropriate given who I was going to be seeing, 1985 turned out to be a very good choice for setting the mood for the day. For a while, I could see the older man looking at the younger man he’d been, the college junior who apparently was involved in putting together a journal, and who was thinking about how to think about the environment. 

Thirty-five years on, it’s clear that enough, or maybe the right, people weren’t/couldn’t be convinced of the deficiencies in our approach to the environment. Eventually a price will be exacted. Some days I conclude that’s just how it is.

(Rick Springfield’s star was beginning to wane by this time. I’ve always liked this song, but it stalled out at #26 a couple weeks later. It was #32 on this show.)

Easter Birthday

It’s not a quick thing to define the date on which Easter falls in a given year in the Western tradition. My understanding has long been “the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox.” That appears to be largely correct, except that unconventional definitions for both ‘full moon’ and ‘vernal equinox’ are being used–“fourteenth day of an ecclesiastical lunar month” and “March 21,” respectively, regardless of when the moon really reaches fullness or when exactly the equinox occurs.

This odd definition may contribute to the fact that there’s not any sort of easily discernible pattern to when Easter happens. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t mini-patterns, however. If one examines the data over, say, a six-hundred year period, one picks up on a semi-regular event: the same date will be Easter three (or four) times over twenty-two (or thirty-three) years, with eleven years between each occurrence. To give three examples we’re currently experiencing, there’s 1991-2002-2013-2024 for March 31; 1999-2010-2021 for April 4; and 1995-2006-2017-2028 for April 16. A fourth such mini-cycle ends today: April 12 was Easter also in 1998 and 2009.

Ninety years ago today, my mother was born. Were she still alive, this would be the fourth time she got to celebrate the start of another year on Easter. The first was her 6th, back in the middle of the Great Depression. Yes, that’s a sixty-two year gap between April 12 Easters, but that’s actually shorter than the upcoming one–the next time Easter is to occur on this date is in 2093.

I was the tiniest bit surprised to discover that prior to 1998 she hadn’t celebrated her birthday on Easter in my lifetime—I guess I’m simply recalling some gauzy sensation from my youth of the two events occurring very close in time. Martha looked for pictures from that day but didn’t find any (also a mild surprise, given how much of a shutterbug she is). We do have evidence from 2009, when Mom turned 79, though:

Light blue was the order of the day, apparently.

Other pictures capture the cake Dad had gotten from an excellent local bakery and of Mom displaying one of her gifts from us (a memoir by a fellow who worked on her parents’ farm when he was growing up, about his experiences running cross-country in high school and college–I brought it home with me after clearing out the folks’ townhouse; while writing this up, I was able to immediately find it on the bookshelf where it currently resides). There’s also a photo with both Mom and Dad in it, taken right after she successfully blew out her candles.

A lot sure can happen in eleven years.

From The Archives: Kay

Kathryn “Kay” Louise Ellis Lutz was born this day 100 years ago in Evansville, IN, the second and final child of Oscar and Mabel Ellis. Her father worked for a veneer company; her mother stayed at home, tending to Kathryn and her older brother Errett, eight years her senior. Oscar’s job involved occasional travel, including to New York City. He loved to sing, and regularly brought home sheet music, much of which we still have in a box in our coat closet. 

In 1920s Evansville, one could begin school in January, and that’s what Kathryn did just before she turned six. Soon after the Great Depression hit, her family moved east, back to her parents’ hometown of New Albany, IN, right across the river from Louisville. Faced with a choice of moving up or back a half-grade, Kay and/or her parents chose the aggressive path, making her likely the youngest member of the New Albany High School Class of 1937. It was in high school that she became Kay—a number of her friends all took on nicknames, and hers was one of the few that stuck over the years. Her senior year was eventful enough: she was elected class Secretary; she became an aunt in September; and the Great ’37 Flood of the Ohio River arrived in January.

After graduating, Kay moved to Muncie, IN, to attend Ball State Teachers College, then an institution of a little over one thousand students, well over 60% of which were female. To save on expenses, her parents soon moved to Muncie as well (her father’s job didn’t require him to live in any particular spot). She took coursework that would allow her to teach business and English.

Tragedy struck during her junior year; back home, Errett died of an infection, leaving behind his wife Helen and three-year-old son Keith. Helen would remarry within a few years and have another son, David. 

The Ellises returned to New Albany upon Kay’s graduation in 1941, and she taught junior high English for one year. The following year, a swelling war effort led to the family moving to Hampton, SC, about eighty miles inland from Charleston; Kay worked in the furniture company’s office, alongside her father. She joined the USO and would occasionally take bus rides to visit the soldiers guarding a nearby German POW camp, even dating one for a while.

Right before Christmas 1945, Oscar died suddenly. Mabel and Kay would move once again to New Albany before long, Mabel going back to office work, as she had prior to marriage, and Kay returning to teaching, this time business, typing, and shorthand at the high school (she also sponsored the cheerleaders). Together, they bought a small house on Meadow Lane.

And so it went for a decade or more, until Austin Lutz waltzed (or, more accurately, do-si-doed) into Kay’s life. Square dancing dates led to love led to marriage two days after Christmas, 1958. Kay and Austin bought the house next door to Kay’s mother; she “retired” from education at the end of the school year. Mabel stayed next door until her death in 1969.

Since she’d married relatively late in life, motherhood hadn’t really been a part of Kay’s plan. Yet she found herself expecting at the age of 41, eventually discovering she was eating for three. She was an attentive, actively-involved mother to Martha and Ruth, serving in leadership roles for Girl Scouts and church youth group.

Martha, Kay, Ruth

Meanwhile, she maintained wide and varying circles of friends and relatives, close and distant. She stayed close with several high school classmates; she and Austin remained very involved in their square dancing group; Kay had joined one of the local chapters of the social sorority Beta Sigma Phi before marrying, and kept her membership throughout the decades; she played a central role in the New Albany High School Alumni Association, which got its start from a gift memorizing one of her classmates; she was a beloved teacher who ran into former students regularly when out and about (and worked side-by-side with many on their children’s activities, as a number of them had children the same age as hers).

Kay was a very spry 75 when I met her, soon after Martha and I began dating. She was always gracious, always kind, even while beating me at a card game called hand-and-foot (a melding game played with multiple decks of cards, not unlike canasta in some respects—she and Austin would play it many evenings). Her favorite saying after drawing just the right card was “Hot pups!”

Kay had an infectious smile and was very good at making everyone feel welcome, even special. She became ‘Grandmama’ in 2000, and excelled in that role—Ben was incredibly fond of her. 

Austin died of pancreatic cancer in 2002. It was a difficult adjustment, but she’d had experience managing things prior to marriage. While she slowed down a little over the years, Kay maintained remarkably good health and was active, particularly at Central Christian Church, until her last few months, just as her husband had been. Cancer, discovered around Memorial Day weekend of 2011, led to surgery, which in turn led to a nursing home; from then until late October, Martha and Ruth took turns going to New Albany, a week at a time. I know it’s not how she wanted things to go.

We spent time over the next year-plus sorting through the house on Meadow Lane—Kay had never gotten around to downsizing.  It took a while figuring out what to keep, what to give away, and what to discard (the fate of the fifty-year-old upright freezer in the basement is a story unto itself). About the time it was ready for sale, the young family next door—living in the house that Kay and her mother had purchased so many years earlier—indicated interest. They had been friendly and attentive to Kay in her final years, so we hoped things would work out. They did, and it all came together when the woman’s mother agreed to buy their house to live next door. It was immensely satisfying to see history repeating itself. I know Kay would have given her blessing.

(You can find a similar article I wrote about Austin two-and-a-half years ago here.)

Whenever One Door Closes

The first photo of me with my mother, ca. March 1964.

Which drew my attention first: Glen Campbell or Anne Murray? “Country Boy” or “Shadows in the Moonlight?”

I’m standing in the hallway around the corner, twenty feet from her room, taking a short break—maybe I’m on the phone with my wife or my sister. There’s another doorway right in front of me. On the other side of the threshold, a radio belonging to a wheelchair-bound woman with dementia is playing country songs that were popular back when she could hold on to her memories. She must be quite hard of hearing as well, since the aides are keeping the music turned up LOUD for her about ten hours every day.

Mom’s been at Dover Manor for a few days, and she’s still thoroughly angry with me. Before long, she’ll move three doors down the hall, on the other side of the blaring radio, to a corner room in the front of the building, one of the only singles in the whole place. Its previous resident has just passed on.

I head back to her current room. Her roommate’s TV is tuned into the Hallmark Channel—it’s the second week of December, time for one feel-good Christmas movie after another—but Mom isn’t the slightest bit interested. 

Continue reading “Whenever One Door Closes”

I Only Like Dreaming All The Day Long

On Wednesday evening, while Martha and I were walking the dog, my high school friend Bill texted me a pleasant surprise:

That would be 19-year-old yours truly, hanging out in 220 Clay Hall, sometime in his freshman spring semester, 1983 (that’s probably about as big as I ever let my hair grow out, by the way). Bill and Tony, another HS classmate, drove down to visit me a couple of times that year, and clearly Bill brought a camera with him once. The photo, charming as it is, was re-discovered this week by Bill’s mom. I’d long forgotten how full the walls around my bed were that year. The two laminated posters to my left had been HS graduation gifts from yet another classmate (if you squint, perhaps you can tell the lower one is a Ziggy poster; she was a big fan). Was I busy with calculus HW, or my research paper on Sikhism? I don’t know, but note the clear evidence that I used a dictionary at least once while in college!

Then yesterday on the way to work, I heard a song on SiriusXM’s 1st Wave that also took me back to that room, right around this time of year. Men at Work’s “Be Good Johnny” was never released as a third single from Business As Usual here in the U.S, but TM Stereo Rock, the vendor supplying WLAP-FM’s automated playlist, added it for a few weeks anyway. I assume that the label decided against putting it out after recognizing that Cargo was almost ready to go? Granted, “Overkill” is easily Men at Work’s best single, but in the alternative world that resides in my head, “Be Good Johnny” peaked at #24 on the Hot 100 just as “Overkill” made its debut in mid-April…