A Cross of Iron

IkeA Debate About Everything Except What Matters

President Obama spoke to the nation from the Oval Office this week about the end of combat operations in Iraq. His advisers said to everyone who would listen that it was time to “turn the page” in the eighth year of the war – a longer period than U.S. involvement in World War I and II combined – and focus on the real threats to U.S. security in Afghanistan and to the need to rebuild the economy at home.

It was only the second time during his increasingly troubled presidency that Obama has used the Oval Office stage to talk directly to the nation and the world. We’ll see soon enough if the message got through. One certainty that is obvious, even given the withdrawal of thousands of U.S. troops from Iraq, is that our military men and women are going to be deployed in the region for most of the rest of our lifetimes.

The consequences – budgetary and otherwise – of these open-ended deployments are hardly debated in the broad sweep of American politics, but make no mistake they are intimately connected to the roaring and constant debate in Washington, D.C. over budgets, deficits and tax cuts.

I’ve only been in the Oval Office once. Bill Clinton was president, but the real presence in that relatively small room was the ghost of everyone who has ever had the awesome and lonely responsibility that goes with sitting at that big desk in that historic house. During Obama’s speech this week my thoughts turned to the last general to sit there – Ike.

Dwight David Eisenhower had the good timing – or luck or whatever – to occupy “the Oval” during the 1950’s. The 1950’s, as David Halberstam wrote in his masterful study of the decade, was a time “captured in black and white, most often by still photographers…not surprisingly, in retrospect the pace of the fifties seemed slower, almost languid.”

Eisenhower, a great general who mastered the logistics and planning of modern warfare, is often remembered for a laissez faire approach to the presidency. True enough in some respects. Eisenhower was slow off the mark on civil rights and his silence for too long on the excesses of Joe McCarthy have appropriately earned him low makes from historians. However, with respect to foreign affairs and the projection of American military power, Eisenhower was anything but slow off the mark or disengaged. The common sense the general/president applied to what he famously called “the military-industrial complex” is sorely missing today.

As Obama attempts to shift American attention and resources from what some have called the three trillion dollar war in Iraq to the challenge of mounting an effective counter insurgency strategy in Afghanistan, the nation’s attention is fixed firmly on other concerns. Most Americans are much more concerned about the still stumbling economy and the rising deficit than the cost and consequences of never ending war. Yet those two issues – a hugely costly war and palpable worry about the economy and debt – can’t help but be related.

Perhaps because we don’t like to confront the cause and effect of ultra-expensive wars and the mountain of debt we face, we struggle with the cognitive dissonance of holding two conflicting thoughts in our political minds at the same time. We seem to think, and few in Congress seem willing to debate the truth of the thought, that we can pursue trillion dollar wars and contain the budget and growing debt at the same time.

The details of the federal budget – so often commented upon, but so seldom understood – can bring on the MEGO effect – My Eyes Glaze Over, but the numbers do matter. An excellent recent piece in Commonweal magazine lays it out in grim detail.

Ronald Osborn, a Bannerman Fellow with the Program in Politics and International Relations at the University of Southern California, wrote the Commonweal piece. Here is part of the context Osborn provides on how military spending and the cost of ours wars is helping drive us into fiscal quick sand.

“The federal budget for 2010 is about $3.5 trillion,” Osborn writes. “Of this amount, $2.2 trillion consists of ‘nondiscretionary’ spending, or items that must be paid for by prior law, including Social Security ($695 billion), Medicare and Medicaid ($743 billion), and interest on the national debt ($164 billion). These costs are all expected to rise exponentially in the coming years as the baby-boom generation enters retirement. The remaining $1.3 trillion of the federal budget is not mandated by prior law but disbursed according to our elected officials’ priorities. This is the government’s ‘discretionary spending.’ Of this amount, about $534 billion will be given in 2010 to the Department of Defense and another $55 billion to Veterans Affairs. Defense spending does not include, however, the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, counted as separate items in the budget under the category of ‘contingency operations.’ In 2010 alone, the wars are slated to cost taxpayers an additional $205 billion, including $76 billion in supplemental spending for 2009 expenses. And the 2011 budget, which increases the DOD’s base budget by $20 billion and the budget for the wars by another $30 billion, already includes a $33 billion supplemental request to cover 2010 war costs.”

Eyes glazed over yet? There is more.

“Even excluding ‘black operations,’ whose budgets are kept secret from the public but nearly doubled in the Bush years to an estimated $32 billion, as well as other programs with strong military overlays (such as NASA and the Department of Homeland Security, whose annual budget has grown to $43 billion), and leaving out the supplemental war spending this year that will appear only on next year’s books, military related spending in 2010 will total well over $700 billion – approximately 55 percent of all discretionary spending. The United States will spend nearly as much this year on its military as the rest of the world combined; and America together with its NATO allies will account for about 70 percent of global military spending.”

Osborn next points out the obvious, but regularly neglected fact that most of that spending is financed by debt. And it is not the debt of my parent’s generation. Mom and Dad bought war bonds. We borrow from China and Japan.

If you believe, as most rational folks do, including the co-chairs of the bi-partisan Presidential Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, that spending must be cut and revenues (make that taxes) increased if we are to begin to bring the deficit under control, then it just doesn’t compute to leave the costs of the endless wars floating out in budget never-never land, untouched and essentially ignored.

Ike, the old general, knew something about military spending. After all, he planned and executed the two most impressive – and costly – Allied initiatives of World War II – the North Africa invasion in 1942 and the Normandy landings in 1944. Yet Eisenhower would argue in the first year of his presidency, 1953, that a permanent war economy “is not a way of life at all, in any true sense,” but, “humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

One of Eisenhower’s better biographers, Michael Korda, has noted the irony of Ike’s famous farewell warning about America becoming a “garrison state” as a result of what he saw, even in 1960, as the growing influence of “the military-industrial complex.” After all, Eisenhower had spent the vast majority of his adult life as part of the vast complex that he had played such a pivotal role in mobilizing to win a war.

“Yet as early as 1945,” Korda writes, “when he had argued against using the atomic bomb on the Japanese, (Eisenhower) was beginning to have doubts about the immense influence of defense contracting and new weapons systems over American politics and policies…the day after his (farewell) speech he complained about the proliferation of advertisements in the pages of American magazines showing Atlas and Titan rockets, as if they were the only things Americans knew how to make.”

The next time you hear a political leader – Republican or Democrat – lament the cost of “entitlements” like Social Security or Medicare, while arguing for further or continuing tax cuts, ask yourself whether we can ever get the nation’s fiscal house in order without addressing the real elephant in the budget room, what the last general to sit in the Oval Office called America’s permanent war economy.


The Verdict of History

saddamWas It Worth It?

Barack Obama recorded another presidential first last night. He became the only president in American history to have opposed a war and then been given the responsibility to manage and, in his case, end that war.

The only historical parallel, I think, that comes close to what Obama signed on for is Dwight Eisenhower’s pledge during his 1952 race to “go to Korea” and end the fighting there. Ike, a military man to the soles of his feet, had been careful to steer clear of opposition to Harry Truman’s intervention in Korea. He did, however, question the conduct of the war.

It fell to Obama to declare the end to United States combat operations in Iraq last night in a somber, respectful speech from the Oval Office heavy with appropriate respect to the men and women who fought, died and were injured there. No “Mission Accomplished” in this speech, but more “this is what I promised to do.”

While the American people seem to have made their minds up about the war, the president’s political opponents seem intent on litigating the success of the Iraq effort post-2007 when George W. Bush and his generals shifted tactics and employed a “surge” counter insurgency approach to bringing something approximating peace to the ancient land. What seems to be missing at this Iraq moment, and perhaps can’t really be ascertained with any certainty, is what next and what lessons?

It has been sobering to read, in the context of American troops and treasure being devoted to Iraq, of the virtually permanent American presence – 30,000 troops – that remains in South Korea today 60 years after that war “ended.” Add to that reality the fact of no permanent Iraqi government in place, basic services in most of Iraq still wholly inadequate for a modern country, a jittery Iran blustering in the region, by even conservative estimates tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians dead and more injured and displaced, and there is still Afghanistan.

The American experience in Vietnam effectively ended in 1973 and as a country we have yet to come to closure on the meaning or lessons of that conflict. It will take, I suspect, just as long to sort out the Iraq experience.

What the war should tell us is something about the limits of American power. The American military, well trained, equipped and lead, could rather easily knock over a tin horn like Saddam. But the harder task, as most military folks well know, is to apply the soft touch of the different skills required for “nation building.” Are we done with Iraq? Hardly. And there is still Afghanistan.

As the fine historian and biographer, Jean Edward Smith - he’s written, among others, about FDR and U.S. Grant – noted last year: “Like President Obama, Eisenhower was an incrementalist who preferred to move gradually, often invisibly, within an existing policy framework. But on the question of war and peace, his views were categorical. He rejected the concept of limited war, and believed that American troops should never be sent into battle unless national survival was at stake.”

Eisenhower also said, having made the decision to seek peace in Korea, that wars have many costs: “Every gun that is fired,” he said in 1953, “every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed….”

History will render the ultimate verdict on whether it was worth 4,400 American lives, thousands of injured soldiers and billions in national treasure to reach a point where, at best, it can be said that Iraq has a very uncertain future.

History can, and often does, judge harshly.


Forecasting the Future

Interior ReportA View of Public Land Policy…50 Years Ago

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

Fifty years ago last Friday – August 27, 1960 – near the end of the Eisenhower Administration, then-Secretary of the Interior Fred Seaton wrote to the President to transmit a report entitled Project Twenty-Twelve. The report was an effort by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to look at its programs fifty years into the future – 2012.

Perhaps Eisenhower conjured up his famous quote about plans and planning when Seaton presented the document; a government report by an agency that had only been around officially since 1946 and was struggling to define its identity.

More likely, I suspect, Ike slipped out the back door of the Oval Office, putter in hand, to visit his private putting green and didn’t give the BLM document a second thought. Then again, one likes to think that the former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, known to be handy with a fly rod, would have taken at least a passing interest in predictions about the future of America’s natural landscape.

In any event, Project Twenty-Twelve, like so many government reports, found a home on a shelf gathering dust. Still the impressive effort at forecasting what the future might hold did lay the foundation for the relatively young agency. BLM was created by the great Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes who combined Interior’s General Land Office with the department’s Grazing Service.

Given the 50th anniversary of the official release of the report, its worth revisiting what they saw in the land management crystal ball as they tried to envisioned the early 21st Century. Credit for unearthing the old report goes to a group of Idaho BLM retirees who, while sitting around at lunch a while back remembered the effort and the document was recently unearthed in BLM archives in Phoenix.

Credit also to the University of Michigan Library which digitized the report in December 2009 and made the full work available on line.

With thanks to my friend and former Andrus Administration colleague, Andy Brunelle, who has a both fine eye for history and an encyclopedic understanding of public lands issues, for both pointing out the existance of the report and helping form some observations that both look back and forward 50 years.

Compared to a modern day Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) the 2012 report was mercifully brief. It includes a nice, short section on the history of the public domain lands and recounts how the federal government gave away lands for 150 years before turning away from that policy in the mid-20th Century. The 1976 passage of
Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) finally brought the public land disposal era to an end.

The second chapter of the forecast provided a broad look at the future. The United States, according to those looking forward a half century, was projected to double in population to 360 million by 2012. We have actually grown a little more slowly, with the current population standing at about 310 million.

The BLM forecasters said in 1960 that the nation would use more than 30 billion cubic feet of wood annually. We are a little over 20 billion now.

While guessing too high on those measures, the report also included a Bureau of Mines projection that the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2012 would stand at $2.4 trillion. The GDP stood at about $500 billion in 1959. Today’s GDP is somewhere around $15 trillion, but in inflation-adjusted terms, and when compared to 1959, the 50 year old guess is actually quite close to what was predicted – $2.4 trillion.

Visits to National Parks, National Forests, BLM lands and state parks were projected to grow from 400 million visits in 1960 to 1.7 billion visits by 2010. It is impossible to compare those guesses to current numbers because the way the agencies monitor visits has changed. This much can be said, however. The percentage of population engaged in outdoor recreation has doubled since 1965 and the amount of time people engage in outdoor recreation has also doubled.

So with population increasing in that period from 180 million to 310 million, Americans are spending twice as much time engaged in outdoor recreation as they were nearly 50 years ago. No wonder its difficult to find a good campsite.

The BLM forecasters also predicted dramatic scientific and technological advances from research and development that would have special impact on BLM programs and operations.

In 1960, the agency forecast widespread application of mechanization and automation in industries dependent on minerals, wood and other raw materials from public lands administered by BLM. This prediction seems spot on since, particularly in the 1980’s, Idaho and other resource states witnessed widespread sawmill modernization that, while making the wood products industry much more productive, also had the unfortunate side effect of the loss of thousands of jobs that were the backbone of many rural communities in the West.

The report forecast water treatment of saline and brackish waters for agriculture and domestic use. This prediction is certainly true as it relates to the vast increase over 50 years in sophisticated community waste water treatment, much of it driven by the Clean Water Act. The prediction has proven to be less valid when agriculture polluted run-off is involved. And, the ocean has not become a major water source, but stay tuned.


BLM forecast fifty years ago the development of transportation systems and facilities for rapid movement of large numbers of people from urban areas to and from rural recreation sites. The Interstate Highway System we now take for granted has helped this prediction to be realized, but we also bought into urban sprawl, exurbs and, in recent years, a welcome trend for some to move back into central cities in places like Portland, Salt Lake City and, to some degree, Boise. I’m betting, as the report forecast, that we see more and more “car free” National Parks in the future with visitors arriving by the shuttles that now move people at Zion and Yosemite.

The agency also forecast improved techniques and facilities for protecting public lands and resources from damaged due to fire, insects, diseases, or other hazards.

Certainly fire protection programs have been greatly improved since the authors of the BLM report thought about the future, but Mother Nature has also responded by producing larger, more intense wildfires. This is the “paradox of success” defined at a 2004 Andrus Center for Public Policy conference on the history and future of the Forest Service.

Critics of the BLM have often referred to the agency at the Bureau of Livestock and Mining – much more true in 1960 than today – and the 1960 report does devote a great deal of attention to the condition of grazing lands as well as an assessment of the mineral estate at that time. Much less attention was focused on forest resources or recreation.

Other parts of the forecast provide a program-by-program discussion of current efforts and how over a fifty year time frame BLM programs will continue to work. This section of the report will likely only be of interest to a BLM alum or a wild land ecologist, but it is nonetheless important stuff.

Only one paragraph – one – is devoted to the topic of weed control, where mention is made that “depleted ranges contribute to the spread of noxious and poisonous weeds” and that an ongoing weed control program is anticipated to respond to this problem. “The long-range program provides for substantial weed control activity through 1980,” the report says, “after which time this work will be progressively reduced.”

What has actually happened is that after about 1980 the increasing spread of noxious weeds became much worse and the BLM continues a long, twilight struggle against these unglamourous, but awfully important pests. We now recognize the important work that must occur with invasive species, whether its weeds affecting habitat and forage, or whirling disease affecting important trout populations. The BLM has generally kept up with the problem and has steadily accelerated the battle.

In the 1960 discussion on forest management, which centers on the O and C lands in Oregon, a smooth path forward was predicted for a sustainable harvest of 1 to 1.2 billion board feet annually for the next fifty years. The projection was good for about half of that period. Twenty-five years in, by 1985, there was growing public discontent about the effects of clearcut logging on public lands, and the BLM’s O and C lands in Oregon were eventually swept into the larger Northwest forest wars symbolized by the environmental concerns over the northern spotted owl.

What the Project Twenty-Twelve planners missed – and what almost any long-range planning effort will struggle to understand – are changing societal values. The planners did not forecast the increasing public and political consensus about environmental protection. They did not – or perhaps could not – forecast that the 1950’s Congressional debates over wilderness would lead to the passage in 1964 of The Wilderness Act.

That fundamental piece of national public land policy was followed by much other legislation – the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968, the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969 and the Endangered Species Act in 1973, to name a few.

The Project Twenty-Twelve report, proves that the most difficult thing to predict in the pace and magnitude of change. It’s pretty easy to collect data and then use a straight line to project growth into the future, but being able to see where the line will curve, or break or take a new direction is much more difficult.

The great general was right. Plans are useless, but planning is essential. Perhaps this old, dusty BLM report can – fifty years after its release – help a new generation of public land managers and policy makers ask better questions about the assumptions we all make about the future.

We can always start with the question and think deeply about it: what is taking place now that won’t – or can’t – continue into the future?

My thanks again to Andy for bringing the Project Twenty-Twelve report – ancient history, but fascinating information – to my attention.

Who Said That?

berra stengelYou Can Look It Up…Maybe

A few days ago I attributed the line “you can look it up” to the Hall of Fame New York Yankee catcher, Yogi Berra. A loyal and close reader gently suggested that I needed to “look it up.” That quote, he said, really came from Casey Stengel, who managed the Bronx Bombers, Mets and others.

After a little research, I’m frankly not sure who said “you can look it up.” It certainly sounds like something either of the memorable speakers of the English language could have said at the end of a sentence about something to do with the great game.

My research did turn up an article about how difficult it is to trace the origin of well-known quotes. Frankly, that didn’t help much because, if I read the piece correctly, you can’t always look it up. Such things are not always, well a sure thing.

I did find the “official” site for Casey Stengel and a whole page of quotes by and about the great manager. My favorite: “The secret of managing is to keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided.” Or this: “Good pitching will always stop good hitting and vice-versa.”

There is an official Yogi site, too, where you can buy his book – “I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said.” One collection of Berra quotes has this classic from, obviously, Yogi’s history of war and politics: “Even Napoleon had his Watergate.”

I did learn this in the search for the origin of the “look it up” quote: In a 1941 short story, the great James Thurber wrote about a three-foot adult (politicallhy incorrect – a midget) being sent to bat in a baseball game. Some claim – but only some – that the Thurber story was the inspiration for baseball owner Bill Veeck’s stunt when he sent three-foot something Eddie Gaudel to the plate in a St. Louis Browns game in 1951. Gaudel got no official at bat. He walked.

You can, oh, never mind.

The title of Thurber’s story? Of course it was – You Could Look It Up.

The Death of a Brand

mccainThe Once and Future John McCain

There once was a time when Arizona Sen. John McCain warmly embraced the label “maverick.” He seemed to delight in taking positions at odds with his party – or even his state’s – orthodoxy. He had established himself firmly in the tradition of some of the great Senate mavericks of the past – LaFollette, Borah, even Goldwater.

But just as BP’s “Beyond Petroleum” brand washed away in the Gulf oil spill, so has McCain’s maverick brand forever vanished thanks to his presidential election run and his ugly, but still decisive,
victory yesterday in the GOP primary in Arizona. McCain, by all odds, will be back in the Senate post-November, but not as a maverick and likely not ever again as an interesting, important American political player.

I have always found the tough, opinionated McCain to be one of the more fascinating characters in American politics. His personal story, the POW experience, his once obvious regard for those on the other side of the aisle, his old school willingness to be an unpredictable independent couldn’t help, at one time, to make him an interesting, maybe even historic, player in the long history of the Senate. That brand is gone, I think, and with it much that made John McCain so interesting and important in the Senate.

As Politico noted in its story today about McCain, during the most recent primary, in addition to spending $21 million, he repudiated many of the positions – immigration, climate change, etc. – that once made his maverick brand genuine:

“Immigration wasn’t the only issue where McCain seemed to recalibrate his position in response to the primary challenge,” Politico said. “He also promised to filibuster any legislation that revoked the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy after pledging to support the repeal in 2006 and he distanced himself from an emissions capping measure he co-sponsored with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) as conservative anger over cap-and-trail boiled over.”

As one commentator noted, McCain rolled out a TV spot with six, tough looking Arizona sheriffs to attest to his new, tough stand on immigration. This is the guy who once teamed with Ted Kennedy to write an immigration reform bill, but during the campaign he walked away – ran away – from all that history.

“The votes are in,” Adam Hanft wrote at the CNN website. “The sheriffs spot — and an entire campaign apparatus that had to relegitimize the senator’s conservative acceptability, including an endorsement from Sarah Palin — did the job.

“But it’s a profound comment on where Republican politics stand in 2010 that John McCain had to run against a new challenger by also running against his old principles.”

The Senate was a more interesting place when McCain the Maverick roamed the floor. He may, who knows, prove to be a maverick again once safely re-elected, but he may also find that in politics once you are seen as running from your principles its pretty hard to ever again be taken seriously, as a maverick or anything else.

 

More Baseball

PiniellaPiniella, the Pirates and Peaking

Whenever I think about Sweet Lou Piniella, who managed his last game Sunday, I remember reading a piece a few years back about the fact that Piniella would often wake up in the middle of the night worrying about what went wrong on the field and how to avoid the misfortune from happening again. Unfortunately, I know the feeling. I’m a post-midnight, middle-of-the-night worrier, too.

But, I digress. In one of these 4:00 a.m. moments, as recounted in the story, Piniella, always worried about his pitching staff, hit upon the notion of going with a four-man rather than a five-man rotation. His next comment was priceless.

”Now at four in the morning it seemed to work for me,” Piniella said. “Whether it works at 7 o’clock at night or 1:30 in the afternoon, I’m not sure.” Exactly. What seems like gold at 4:00 a.m. often looks like something a lot less valuable in the cold light of day.

In any event, we may never know if another of Lou’s middle-of-the-night brainstorms is a keeper, since he vows he is done with the dugout and, finally, really going to hang it up. It has been quite a ride for the one-time Yankee outfielder and American and National League manager of World Series winners and also rans. By all accounts, Piniella is a nice guy with a Hall of Fame temper on the diamond. I’ll miss seeing him pull a base out of the infield and try to turn it into a Frisbee.

The Pirates

The hapless Pittsburgh Pirates – you know you’ve become hopeless when the that word hapless is the only adjective that seems to work in front of your name. The hapless Bucs have – here we are in late August – ensured that they will endure their 18th consecutive losing season. Since 1992, there has never been a point in any season when the once-stories Pittsburgh franchise was more than seven games over .500. This year, the Pirates ensured a losing season faster than ever. Some record that.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had a great photo a fan holding a sign reading, “I’m a Cubs fan, I came to Pittsburgh to feel better.” Ouch.

If all that losing wasn’t bad enough, the Associated Press obtained club documents that show while Pittsburgh fans were agonizing over all those sub-.500 years, the guys in the front office were some how able to make just north of $29 million bucks the last two seasons. Who says losing doesn’t pay? Obviously, the Pirate owners weren’t spending any of their money on baseball players. It wasn’t always so.

Back when Joe L. Brown run the front office the Pirates won two World Series titles and five Division titles. Brown, who died last week at 91, was one of the best baseball people most folks never heard of. Brown was the Pirates GM from the 1950’s to the 1970’s.

As the New York Times noted in its obit: “In building the 1960 champions, Mr. Brown blended (Roberto) Clemente, (Bill) Mazeroski, Dick Groat and pitchers Bob Friend, Vern Law and Roy Face with players he obtained in trades: center fielder Bill Virdon, third baseman Don Hoak, catchers Smoky Burgess and Hal Smith, and pitchers Harvey Haddix and Vinegar Bend Mizell.”

in 1971, under Brown, the Pirates fielded the first all-black starting nine in a game with the Phillies.

And…more on “the” home run

A few loyal readers pointed out that I failed to address, in my weekend post on Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard round the world,” the controversy over whether Thomson knew what was coming that October afternoon at the Polo Grounds when he hit his famous home run off of Ralph Branca.

Joshua Prager’s book The Echoing Green makes a strong case that the Giants had spent all of the 1951 season at the Polo Grounds stealing the signs of opposing pitchers by use of a Rube Goldberg-like, but still ingenious, system of telescopes and buzzers. In Prager’s account, Giants’ hitters could get tipped off to what was coming.

Until his dying day, Thomson denied any advance knowledge that Branca was going to serve up the fastball that would be immortalized on film, in novels and in Russ Hodges’ famous “the Giants win the pennant” radio call.

It is a great story, and the “truth” will never be known with any certainty but, you know what, I don’t think it matters? And, here’s why.

It has been said, and I think it is true, that hitting a baseball being throw at you from 60 feet away at near 100 miles per hour is the single hardest thing to do in all of sports.

My dad – a baseball fan and not a golfer – used to ask, when watching the U.S. Open or the Masters on television, why the crowd had to be perfectly quiet when a golfer is preparing to hit a stationary ball sitting on the ground, while a major league hitter is expected to concentrate in front of a screaming crowd of 50,000 fans, and hit a leather rock being throw at frightening speed that could be aimed at his head or his feet or anywhere in between? Good question.

Bobby Thomson may well have known a Ralph Branca fastball was on the way. He still had to hit it and under the most intense kind of pressure. He didn’t pop it up to the shortstop, he hit it into the left field stands. End of story.

As the great novelist Don DeLillo wrote in the prologue to his book Underworld, which is set at the Polo Grounds on the afternoon of Thomson’s homer when the Giants beat the Dodgers:

“…fans at the Polo Grounds today will be able to tell their grandchildren – they’ll be the gassy old men leaning into the next century and trying to convince anyone willing to listen, pressing in with medicine breath, that they were here when it happened.”

I wasn’t there when it happened, or even born, but that doesn’t matter, either. It did happen – the most perfect home run ever – thanks to the late Bobby Thomson.

Did I mention that he was a Giant? His homer beat the Dodgers, too. What a story.