January 31, 2012
One year into the Great Depression, millions of Americans were turning to football to take their minds off unemployment, bread lines, debt and deflation. Despite the hardships of 1930, there was something to cheer about in New York. The Giants had won an NFL Championship in 1927, and two years later, owner Tim Mara bought another NFL team, the Detroit Wolverines, mostly so he could acquire standout quarterback and Michigan native Benny Friedman. In the autumn of 1930, the Friedman-led Giants jumped out to a 10-1 record and appeared to be on their way toward another championship.
Still, sportswriters and sports fans were not entirely convinced that the best football in the country was being played in the National Football League. Not with Notre Dame beating every college team it played in sold-out stadiums across the country. The Fighting Irish’s famous and feared 1924 backfield, immortalized as the “Four Horsemen” by sportswriter Grantland Rice, was six years gone, but the 1930 team was coming off an undefeated championship season in 1929 under legendary coach Knute Rockne. By November of 1930, they still hadn’t been beat.
That fall, Northwestern University had announced that if Notre Dame would play next season’s scheduled game at Chicago’s Soldier Field (which could accommodate 125,000 fans), Northwestern would donate, in advance, $100,000 from the proceeds to Illinois Governor Louis Lincoln Emmerson’s unemployment fund. Such efforts were springing up throughout the nation; in New York City, Mayor Jimmy Walker had formed his own fund to help the unemployed. Walker hoped the Giants would be interested in playing an exhibition game for the benefit of his fund, so he met with Mara and some sportswriters to kick around ideas for a matchup that would capture the public’s imagination.
“Why not Notre Dame?” one writer asked.
Many fans had been asking the same thing. Could the Fighting Irish beat one of professional football’s strongest teams? The NFL wasn’t sure it wanted to know. The league, after 10 years of play, was still struggling to establish credibility, and the Giants had been around for only five years. Notre Dame, on the other hand, had been a proven dynasty under Rockne. Fans across the country had little doubt that the best college teams, and certainly Notre Dame, were playing a brand of football that was superior to the pro game. A Giants-Irish matchup would certainly raise enough money to make Mayor Walker happy, but a Giants loss could also destroy the NFL.
January 27, 2012
Even today, with advanced foods, and radios, and insulated clothing, a journey on foot across Antarctica is one of the harshest tests a human being can be asked to endure. A hundred years ago, it was worse. Then, wool clothing absorbed snow and damp. High-energy food came in an unappetizing mix of rendered fats called pemmican. Worst of all, extremes of cold pervaded everything; Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who sailed with Captain Scott’s doomed South Pole expedition of 1910-13, recalled that his teeth, “the nerves of which had been killed, split to pieces” and fell victim to temperatures that plunged as low as -77 degrees Fahrenheit.
Cherry-Garrard survived to write an account of his adventures, a book he titled The Worst Journey in the World. But even his Antarctic trek—made in total darkness in the depths of the Southern winter—was not quite so appalling as the desperate march faced one year later by the Australian explorer Douglas Mawson. Mawson’s journey has gone down in the annals of polar exploration as probably the most terrible ever undertaken in Antarctica.
In 1912, when he set sail across the Southern Ocean, Mawson was 30 years old and already acclaimed as one of the best geologists of his generation. Born in Yorkshire, England, but happily settled in Australia, he had declined the chance to join Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed expedition in order to lead the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, whose chief purpose was to explore and map some of the most remote fastnesses of the white continent. Tall, lean, balding, earnest and determined, Mawson was an Antarctic veteran, a supreme organizer and physically tough.
The Australasian party anchored in Commonwealth Bay, an especially remote part of the Antarctic coast, in January 1912. Over the next few months, wind speeds on the coast averaged 50 m.p.h. and sometimes topped 200, and blizzards were almost constant. Mawson’s plan was to split his expedition into four groups, one to man base camp and the other three to head into the interior to do scientific work. He nominated himself to lead what was known as the Far Eastern Shore Party—a three-man team assigned to survey several glaciers hundreds of miles from base. It was an especially risky assignment. Mawson and his men have the furthest to travel, and hence the heaviest loads to carry, and they would have to cross an area pitted with deep crevasses, each concealed by snow.
Mawson selected two companions to join him. Lieutenant Belgrave Ninnis, a British army officer, was the expedition’s dog handler. Ninnis’s close friend Xavier Mertz, was a 28-year-old Swiss lawyer whose chief qualifications for the trek were his idiosyncratic English—a source of great amusement to the other two—his constant high spirits, and his standing as a champion cross-country skier.
The explorers took three sledges, pulled by a total of 16 huskies and loaded with a combined 1,720 pounds of food, survival gear and scientific instruments. Mawson limited each man to a minimum of personal possessions. Nennis chose a volume of Thackeray, Mertz a collection of Sherlock Holmes short stories. Mawson took his diary and a photograph of his fiancée, an upper-class Australian woman named Francisca Delprait, but known to all as Paquita.
At first Mawson’s party made good time. Departing from Commonwealth Bay on November 10, 1912, they traveled 300 miles by December 13. Almost everything was going according to plan; the three men reduced their load as they ate their way through their supplies, and only a couple of sick dogs had hindered their progress.
January 25, 2012
On the damp and chilly morning of Wednesday, February 2, 1949, Ben Hogan got up before the sun and hit the El Capitan Motel coffee shop in Van Horn, Texas. He and his wife, Valerie, had driven more than 500 miles east from Phoenix the day before, and while the road made his wife queasy, he craved a quick breakfast, and they still had to go 500 miles east to Forth Worth. Ben ate, went back to their room and packed the Cadillac with their luggage and his golf clubs.
Ben Hogan had reached the pinnacle of his career. For the first time, the diminutive golfer had captured two major tournaments in the same year—the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship. Two weeks earlier, his face had appeared on the cover of Time magazine, above the quotation that would define him: “If you can’t outplay them, outwork them.”
Hogan had been working for as long as he could remember. In 1922, when he was 9, his father, a blacksmith named Chester, pointed a gun at his chest and committed suicide. Hogan biographer James Dodson says some reports place Ben in the room of their home in Fort Worth, Texas, at the time. The loss of the family breadwinner meant the Hogan children had to contribute financially. Ben sold newspapers at the train station, then became a caddy at a nearby country club. He was 11. When he wasn’t carrying bags, he spent countless hours on the practice range. Digging hundreds of balls out of the dirt, day after day, he worked to the point where, legend had it, his hands would bleed. He sought to hit a perfectly controlled ball, and to achieve a repeatable swing that would hold up under pressure. Perhaps it allowed him to feel a measure of control over the chaos around him. Whatever, he could be found on the range long after his fellow caddies, and ultimately his fellow competitors, had left the golf course.
In 1949, even the best professional golfers drove thousands of miles each year to tournaments across the country, lugging not just their clothes and clubs, but their families. By February 1949, Hogan had driven more than 3,000 miles since the start of the golf season, and he’d won two of his first four tournaments. He was leading the tour on the money list in what promised to be another remarkable year–but he told Time, “It’s the traveling. I want to die an old man, not a young one.”
Ben and Valerie Hogan pulled out of the parking lot at the El Capitan in sunshine, heading east along two-lane Highway 80. They hadn’t gone ten miles when they ran into a dense fog and a slick, icy film on the road. Hogan cut his speed to 25 miles per hour; then he saw “four lights winking at me.” A Greyhound bus was trying to pass a truck, filling Hogan’s lane. He looked to veer off the road but saw a culvert on his right. “I knew we were going to get hit,” he said.
The Greyhound plowed head-on into Hogan’s Cadillac. At the last second, the golfer hurled himself across his wife. “That was the first break I got in all this trouble,” Hogan later said. The steering wheel and part of his car’s engine was “hammered thru the cushion on my side of the seat.” If he had stayed where he was, he was convinced, he’d have been crushed.
Hogan blacked out upon impact; Valerie was dazed but remained conscious. Both of them were pinned against the dashboard. She managed to lower the passenger-side window and began screaming for help as Ben slipped in and out of consciousness. He moaned and told her to “Get out!” He was afraid the car was going to catch fire.
Valerie freed herself and raised Ben to a sitting position. Another driver came along, and together they pulled the golfer from the Cadillac. It took ninety minutes for an ambulance to arrive. As Hogan was lifted in, he asked his wife if his golf clubs were accounted for. They were.
Word had quickly spread that Ben Hogan had been killed. Some of his fellow golfers, playing in a pro-am tournament in Arizona, walked off the course mid-round upon hearing the false news. Later that day, Hogan’s friends were informed that he was alive but in critical condition, and some of them made it to the Hotel Dieu Hospital in El Paso. Valerie seemed to be fine, despite the bruises on her face and various cuts, but they saw Ben strapped to the bed, covered in gauze.His face was cut and bruised, and his left eye was practically swollen shut. Doctors had diagnosed Hogan with a fractured left collarbone, a double fraction of his pelvis, a broken ankle and a chipped rib.
After setting his bones, doctors expected him to go home in a few weeks. A “complete recovery” was possible, they said, within two months—mostly due to “Ben’s fighting heart.” But before Hogan could leave, his lungs gave doctors cause for concern; he had severe chest pains. Blood clots had formed in his legs after two weeks in bed, and by the end of February, doctors discovered that one clot had traveled to his lung. They gave him several blood transfusions, then performed abdominal surgery to tie off the inferior vena cava—the large vein that carries blood from the lower half of the body to the heart. Hogan would spend another pain-filled month in the hospital, unable to leave his bed. A wiry 137 pounds at the time of the accident, he dropped nearly 20 pounds during his stay. A return to the golf course was no longer seen as certain.
It was March 29, 1949, before Hogan made it home to Fort Worth. He passed the summer trying to regain his strength. He was too weak to swing a club, and even short walks wore him out. The procedure on his vena cava caused chronic pain, swelling and fatigue—conditions that would plague him for the rest of his life. But he was determined to work as hard on his recovery as he was his golf swing.
“It’s going to be a long haul,” he told reporters, “and in my mind, I don’t think that I’ll ever get back the playing edge I had last year. You work for perfection all your life, and then something like this happens. My nervous system has been shot by this, and I don’t see how I can readjust it to competitive golf. But you can bet I’ll be back there swinging.”
“Don’t believe a word of it,” Valerie said. “Ben will be himself again, bones, nerves and all.”
Sam Snead, Cary Middlecoff and a young golfer named Arnold Palmer battled for headlines in the summer of 1949, while Hogan shuffled around his house. He was named non-playing captain of the U.S. Ryder Cup team and traveled to England for the matches, where he delighted fans by putting on the practice green. It was the most he could do, seven months after the accident. Reporters described him as “crippled.” But returning to the States, Hogan began to regain some strength. Then he began to practice.
By June of 1950, 16 months after the accident, Bantam Ben was back on the course, this time trying to reclaim his place as golf’s greatest competitor in American golf’s biggest tournament—the U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club in Pennsylvania. He had played several tournaments leading up to the Open, but on the third and final day of grueling competition, he began to wilt under 36 holes of golf in the heat, and his lead began to evaporate on the final few holes.
With everything on the line, Hogan needed to hit an impossibly long shot from the fairway to make par on 18th and final hole. A packed gallery formed a silent gauntlet around him as he practically staggered to his ball, according to eyewitnesses. Judging the yardage, Hogan reached for his one iron—the most difficult club in his bag to hit. The old joke goes that if you’re ever in a lightning storm, the safest thing to do is to hold up your one iron, for even God can’t hit a one iron.
Hogan steadied himself over the ball, slowly began his backswing, unleashed his power and sent the ball flying. The crowd around him gasped at the sound of his shot and the sight of the ball heading toward the flag. Hogan went on to par the hole and force a three-way playoff. After getting a good night’s sleep, he easily won the U.S. Open the following day, the only player of the three to shoot a round under par.
The tournament represented Hogan’s rebirth: He would go on to dominate golf like never before, winning in 1953 the unprecedented “Hogan Slam” of three straight major tournaments. (He did not play in the fourth major—the PGA Championship—because he did not want to walk more than 18 holes a day.) The car crash, and Hogan’s near death, many of his friends later said, made him a more outgoing and compassionate man. But despite everything he accomplished on the course after his accident, Hogan was convinced he had come as close to perfection in the months before the crash. His post-crash golf swing, recorded on film, is still used as an example of near-perfect ball striking and mechanics. Only Hogan himself disagreed. “I was better in 1948 and ’49 than I’ve ever been,” he said, years later.
Articles: “Golfer Ben Hogan Injured in Car Crash,” Chicago Daily Tribune, February 3, 1949. ”Hogan, Wife Tell of Texas Auto Crash,” Chicago Daily Tribune, March 30, 1949. “Hogan Faces Stern Fight in Hospital,” Hartford Courant, March 4, 1949. ”Golfer Hogan Winning His Hardest Match of All,” Chicago Daily Tribune, March 29, 1949. ”Remarkable Hogan Wins ’50 U.S. Open,” by Larry Schwartz, ESPN Classic, November 19, 2003. “Hogan’s Return: Back From Tragedy to Win the 1950 U.S. Open,” by Damon Hack, Golf.com, October 20, 2008, “Hogan Majored in Courage,” by Larry Schwartz, ESPN’s Sports Century, “What could Have Been,” by Jaime Diaz, Golf Digest, June, 2009. ”Ben Hogan’s Wife Remembers Husband as Exhibit Opens in USGA Museum,” Associated Press, June 9, 1999,
Books: James Dodson, Ben Hogan: An American Life, Doubleday, 2004. Curt Sampson, Hogan, Rutledge Press, 1996.
January 19, 2012
As we settle in to 2012, I asked the three terrific writers of Past Imperfect – Karen Abbott, Mike Dash and Gilbert King — to pull together a list of the writers and bloggers who they felt were folks to watch in the coming year. For more people to watch in 2012, see our lists of up-and-coming innovators and food writers– BW
The writer I’ve most enjoyed getting to know this year is Seattle-based Bess Lovejoy, a wonderful researcher whose forthcoming book on the afterlives of the famous – tentatively titled Shelley’s Heart, Descartes’ Parts – I have high hopes for. Meanwhile Lucy Inglis, whose blog Georgian London has been attracting deserved plaudits for its excellence for years, goes into print this summer with a book of the same title. If it’s up to the standards of her fantastically curious, eclectic and humane blog (which I’m sure it will be), it will be well worth waiting for.
In blogging, my own favorite recent discovery is a wonderful (and wonderfully-titled) blog on the history of science and exploration, Time to Eat the Dogs, which is excellently presented, very well researched and sufficiently broad in content to remain perennially fascinating. Giles Milton, a British popular historian who’s published a string of best-selling books, has begun to blog weekly at his own site , covering material that’s similar in tone to Past Imperfect. Meanwhile there seems little doubt that the excellent Dr. Beachcombing, a full-time academic who somehow finds time to blog daily on a wide variety of extraordinary topics from the margins of history, will continue to go from strength to strength. Last year’s mini-obsession with historical accounts of fairies is set to bear fruit with a whole series of full-fledged journal articles, and Beach’s ever-growing readership increasingly provide him with a supply of fresh material that supplements the already impressive diversity of his blog.
From Gilbert and Karen:
Gary Krist, novelist and author of the well-received The White Cascade (about a 1910 avalanche). His forthcoming book, City of Scoundrels, is a harrowing tale of two weeks of crisis in Chicago during the summer of 1919.
Tim Brady is the author of a forthcoming book, Twelve Desperate Miles: The Epic World War II Voyage of the SS Contessa.
Mark Norell is the chairman of the Division of Paleontology, as well as the curator-in-charge (fossil, reptiles, amphibians and birds), at the American Museum of Natural History. He’s also “the coolest dude alive,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Norell is the author of Barnum Brown: The Man Who Discovered Tyrannosaurus Rex, and more recently, Traveling the Silk Road: Ancient Pathway to the Modern World.
Candice Millard is the author of The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey and Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine & the Murder of a President.
Jonathan Lopez is the author of The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren, and a forthcoming book on Vincent Van Gogh, In the Light of God
January 17, 2012
President James A. Garfield lay in a rodent-infested sickroom in the White House, a bullet lodged in his body. Weeks had passed since the assassin had struck, but more than a dozen doctors were struggling to save him. Day after day, summer temperatures approached 100 degrees, and mosquitoes thrived in the swamps around Washington. Four White House staff members had contracted malaria recently, as had the first lady, Lucretia Garfield. The president’s internal infections raged and spread, fevers came and went, and his heart began to weaken. He felt it most in his lower extremities—the acute neurological sensations he called “tiger’s claws,” which seized him regularly. Aides at his bedside would squeeze his feet and calves with all their might to relieve the 49-year-old president’s pain.
“Yes, I suffer some,” he told one attendant. “I suppose the tigers are coming back, but they don’t usually stay long. Don’t be alarmed, old boy!”
His three oldest children, Harry, James and Mollie, all teenagers, were taken into his room for visits, advised to do most of the talking and not to bring up anything unpleasant out of fear of aggravating their father’s condition. Doctors desperately probed Garfield’s abdomen with unsterilized tools and unwashed hands in search of the bullet, which had lodged harmlessly in soft tissue near his vertebrae. Such a gunshot wound today would require no more than a few days in the hospital. But the 20th president of the United States was spiraling rapidly and inevitably to his death—bravely and for the most part in good cheer as his physicians made one mistake after another, from nutrition to medication.
Charles J. Guiteau, a mentally unstable 41-year-old lawyer, had stalked Garfield for months before shooting him at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad station in Washington on July 2, 1881. Though Guiteau had passed the bar exam and used money from an inheritance to start a law firm in Chicago, he could never bring in much business beyond bill collecting, and he’d gotten in trouble more than once for pocketing what he collected. Turning to politics, Guiteau wrote a speech supporting former president Ulysses S. Grant as the Republican Party’s nominee for the 1880 campaign; when Garfield surprisingly captured the nomination instead, Guiteau revised his speech (mostly by changing references from Grant to Garfield) and delivered it on a few occasions to small audiences. He fell under the delusion that he was responsible for Garfield’s victory over Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock and immediately began pressing the president-elect for an appointment as ambassador to Austria.