RIP Studs Terkel — ‘Take it easy, but take it’

People who thought they were middle class began to accept middle-class values as their values. They accepted someone else’s ideas about what they are. In my book, you find steel workers and farmers out of work, but still liking Ronald Reagan. During the Depression, people who lived in shacks called them Hoovervilles, but I never heard anyone call them Reaganvilles.

—Studs Terkel, 1988 interview in The New York Times

Studs Terkel, a real champion of working-class Americans, died Friday at age 96. The writer and prolific interviewer was best known for chronicling the struggles of working Americans in books like Division Street: America.

Terkel was not afraid to stand up for his liberal causes, including civil rights (yes, one of those dastardly lefties who dared to demand equality for blacks and for all “average” working-class Americans). He had some interesting things to say in his final days.

“I’d ask Obama, do you plan to follow up on the program of the New Deal of FDR?” he told Edward Lifson at the Huffington Post in an article posted eight days before Terkel died. “I’d tell him, ‘don’t fool around on a few issues, such as health care. We’ve got bigger work to do! Read FDR’s second inaugural address!'”

Fellow Chicagoan Roger Ebert said:

Was he the greatest Chicagoan? I cannot think of another. For me, he represented the joyous, scrappy, liberal, generous, wise-cracking heart of this city.

Terkel also knew what it meant to defend and promote working class Americans, and paid a price for his convictions, getting blacklisted because of the atmosphere spawned by the future Gov. Sarah Palin, er, the past Senator Joe McCarthy, for daring to sign liberal petitions and standing firm for his political beliefs. In his work, he championed the rights of all Americans.

“Studs Terkel was part of a great Chicago literary tradition that stretched from Theodore Dreiser to Richard Wright to Nelson Algren to Mike Royko,” Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said in a statement (via Bloomberg.com).

And for all those mocking the Senator from Chicago for his tag-line of “hope,” here’s what Terkel had to say to Amy Goodman after his 95th birthday:

One of my books is Hope Dies Last. Without hope, forget it. It’s hope and thought …. That’s what it’s about. That’s what I hope I’m about.

As Studs Terkel said in his radio sign-offs on Chicago’s WFMT: “Take it easy, but take it.”

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Great Men Out

Lost, perhaps, in the sad news last week of the death of Buffalo’s own Tim Russert was the death of another journalist — Eliot Asinof’s passing at 88 a week ago can hardly be called sudden in the way Russert’s was, especially because Big Tim was 30 years his junior.

Eight Men Out coverStill, let’s not forget Asinof. His 1963 book Eight Men Out, filled with research, interviews and (according to the Times) some fiction was a groundbreaking work, and one of the many influences of The Young Icepick in his quest to become a Writer — I read it at age 15 when an edition was released to coincide with John Sayles’ excellent 1988 movie.

Asinof’s conceit, hammered home in Sayles’ film, is the eight Black Sox of 1919 were victims of a miserly owner and a unionless system that chewed them up with no chance for the freedom that today’s free agents enjoy, even though at least five of the eight were in fact guilty of throwing games to the gamblers.

The scandal ruined the lives of many yet, in an ironic way, saved the sport from shadiness by paving the way for Babe Ruth and the needed strong, centralized leadership of baseball’s Office of the Commissioner; strong and heavy-handed, and perhaps too heavy-handed at times — Ford Frick helped kill an early Asinof screenplay attempt at the Black Sox story — though Bud Selig has acted like he’s been apologetically making up for prior commissioners.

There was much heartbreak on individual lives in the pages of Eight Men Out, from the young boy’s plea of “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” to the sad decline of the talented but naive Buck Weaver, still looking for another chance to play practically until the day he collapsed and died on a street on Chicago’s Southside at age 66.

The story gets a lot of justified mileage as a tale of the Loss of American Innocence, coming on the heels of the horrors of World War I and the moralizing by the Baby Booomer-like righteous leaders of Strauss & Howe’s Missionary Generation that instituted Prohibition.

Asinof, Bruce Weber’s Times obit states, was blacklisted in the 1950s, with Asinof claiming, “after he got hold of his F.B.I. file, the blacklisting came about because ‘I had at one time signed a petition outside of Yankee Stadium to encourage the New York Yankees to hire black ballplayers.’”

The passing of Asinof, who lived in upstate Ancramdale since 1985, near where I cut some teeth covering semi-semi-semi-pro ball in cow country, was sadly missed by my sometimes favorite sports blogs, which shows there is some (some) use for newspapers still. (Though how weak is it that in Chicago, muse of Nelson Algren, home of the Black Sox story itself, the Tribune ran the obit written and distributed by the New York Times, and not by one of its own writers, perhaps highlighting the downward turn of the Sam Zell’s Tribune and the local press in general. But again, I digress.)

Happily, I discover via The Google this blog post at Bronx Banter at Baseball Toaster by writer Alex Belth, who quotes Roger Kahn as saying Asinof had “an enduring anger at what he perceived to be injustice” — my kind of hard-working writer.

Belth later quotes Glenn Stout as saying Asinof was one of the first writers (including Al Stump of Cobb fame, another Icepick favorite) to legitimize baseball history as a serious subject.

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