May 16, 2012
For Lawrence Oates, the race to the South Pole had a portentous start. Just two days after the Terra Nova Expedition left New Zealand in November 1910, a violent storm killed two of the 19 ponies in Oates’s care and nearly sank the ship. His journey ended almost two years later, when he stepped out of a tent and into the teeth of an Antarctic blizzard after uttering ten words that would bring tears of pride to mourning Britons. During the long months in between, Oates’s concern for the ponies paralleled his growing disillusionment with the expedition’s leader, Robert Falcon Scott.
Oates had paid one thousand pounds for the privilege of joining Scott on an expedition that was supposed to combine exploration with scientific research. It quickly became a race to the South Pole after the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, already at sea with a crew aboard the Fram, abruptly changed his announced plan to go to the North Pole. “BEG TO INFORM YOU FRAM PROCEEDING ANTARCTIC—AMUNDSEN,” read the telegram he sent to Scott. It was clear that Amundsen would leave the collecting of rock specimens and penguin eggs to the Brits; he wanted simply to arrive first at the pole and return home to claim glory on the lecture circuit.
Born in 1880 to a wealthy English family, Lawrence Oates attended Eton before serving as a junior officer in the Second Boer War. A gunshot wound in a skirmish that earned Oates the nickname “Never Surrender” shattered his thigh, leaving his left leg an inch shorter than his right.
Still, Robert Scott wanted Oates along for the expedition, but once Oates made it to New Zealand, he was startled to see that a crew member (who knew dogs but not horses) had already purchased ponies in Manchuria for five pounds apiece. They were “the greatest lot of crocks I have ever seen,” Oates said. From past expeditions, Scott had deduced that white or gray ponies were stronger than darker horses, though there was no scientific evidence for that. When Oates told him that the Manchurian ponies were unfit for the expedition, Scott bristled and disagreed. Oates seethed and stormed away.
Inspecting the supplies, Oates quickly surmised that there was not enough fodder, so he bought two extra tons with his own money and smuggled the feed aboard the Terra Nova. When, to great fanfare, Scott and his crew set off from New Zealand for Antarctica on November 29, 1910, Oates was already questioning the expedition in letters home to his mother: “If he [Amundsen] gets to the Pole first we shall come home with our tails between our legs and make no mistake. I must say we have made far too much noise about ourselves all that photographing, cheering, steaming through the fleet etc. etc. is rot and if we fail it will only make us look more foolish.” Oates went on to praise Amundsen for planning to use dogs and skis rather than walking beside horses. “If Scott does anything silly such as underfeeding his ponies he will be beaten as sure as death.”
After a harrowingly slow journey through pack ice, the Terra Nova arrived at Ross Island in Antarctica on January 4, 1911. The men unloaded and set up base at Camp Evans, as some crew members set off in February on an excursion in the Bay of Whales, off the Ross Ice Shelf—where they caught sight of Amundsen’s Fram at anchor. The next morning they saw Amundsen himself, crossing the ice at a blistering pace on his dog sled as he readied his animals for an assault on the South Pole, some 900 miles away. Scott’s men had had nothing but trouble with their own dogs, and their ponies could only plod along on the depot-laying journeys they were making to store supplies for the pole run.
May 9, 2012
The Chicago Bulls and their fans watched in horror as their star guard, Derrick Rose collapsed on the floor toward the end of a recent playoff game against the Philadelphia 76ers. Just days later, the New York Yankees and their fans watched Mariano Rivera, the greatest relief pitcher in baseball history, fall to the ground while shagging fly balls before the start of a game in Kansas City. Both athletes suffered torn anterior cruciate ligaments in their knees, putting their futures and their teams’ prospects in doubt. Sportswriters called the injuries “tragic.”
Of course, both injuries were shocking, but “tragic” might be better reserved for matters of life and death and athletic contests gone awry—such as a confrontation that took place more than 90 years ago in New York, in the heat of a pennant race, when a scrappy Cleveland Indians shortstop stepped into the batter’s box against a no-nonsense Yankees pitcher.
The Indians were in first place, a half-game ahead of the Yankees on August 16, 1920, when they arrived at the Polo Grounds, the home the Yankees shared with the New York Giants until Yankee Stadium was built three years later. It was the start of a three-game series on a dark and drizzly Monday afternoon in Harlem. On the mound for the Yankees was right-hander Carl Mays, the ace of the staff, hoping to notch his 100th career win. Mays, a spitballer (legal at the time), threw with an awkward submarine motion, bending his torso to the right and releasing the ball close to the ground—he sometimes scraped his knuckles in the dirt. Right-handed submariners tend to give right-handed batters the most trouble because their pitches will curve in toward the batter, jamming him at the last moment. Mays, one baseball magazine noted, looked “like a cross between an octopus and a bowler” on the mound. “He shoots the ball in at the batter at such unexpected angles that his delivery is hard to find, generally until along about 5 o’clock, when the hitters get accustomed to it—and when the game is about over.”
Mays had good control for a submariner, but he also was known as a “headhunter” who was not shy about brushing batters, especially right-handers, off the plate; he was consistently among the American League leaders in hit batsmen. His feud with Detroit Tigers great Ty Cobb was particularly intense: In one game, he threw at the cantankerous “Georgia Peach” every time he came to bat, prompting Cobb to throw his bat at Mays, Mays to call Cobb a “yellow dog,” the umpires to separate the two as they tried to trade blows, and Mays to hit Cobb on the wrist with his next pitch. In another game, Cobb laid a bunt down the first-base line so he could spike Mays when the pitcher covered the base.
March 14, 2012
Thomas Alva Edison’s sprawling complex of laboratories and factories in West Orange, New Jersey, was a place of wonderment in the late 19th century. Its machinery could produce anything from a locomotive engine to a lady’s wristwatch, and when the machines weren’t running, Edison’s “muckers” —the researchers, chemists and technologically curious who came from as far away as Europe—might watch a dance performed by Native Americans from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in the inventor’s Black Maria movie studio or hear classical musicians recording on Edison’s wax cylinder phonographs.
The muckers happily toiled through 90-hour work weeks, drawn by the allure of the future. But they also faced the perils of the unknown—exposure to chemicals, acids, electricity and light. No one knew this better than Edison mucker Clarence Madison Dally, who unwittingly gave his life to help develop one of the most important innovations in medical diagnostic history. When it became apparent what Dally had done to himself in the name of research, Edison walked away from the invention. “Don’t talk to me about X-rays,” he said. “I am afraid of them.”
Born in 1865, Dally grew up in Woodbridge, New Jersey, in a family of glassblowers employed by the Edison Lamp Works in nearby Harrison. At 17 he enlisted in the Navy, and after serving six years he returned home and worked beside his father and three brothers. At age 24, he was transferred to the West Orange laboratory, where he would assist in Edison’s experiments on incandescent lamps.
February 21, 2012
It was, by all accounts, a glorious Wednesday morning on June 15, 1904, and the men of Kleindeutschland—Little Germany, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side–were on their way to work. Just after 9 o’clock, a group from St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on 6th Street, mostly women and children, boarded the General Slocum for their annual end-of-school outing. Bounding aboard what was billed as the “largest and most splendid excursion steamer in New York,” the children, dressed in their Sunday school outfits, shouted and waved flags as the adults followed, carrying picnic baskets for what was to be a long day away.
A German band played on deck while the children romped and the adults sang along, waiting to depart. Just before 10 o’clock, the lines were cast off, a bell rang in the engine room, and a deck hand reported to Captain William Van Schaick that nearly a thousand tickets had been collected at the plank. That number didn’t include the 300 children under the age of 10, who didn’t require tickets. Including crew and catering staff, there were about 1,350 aboard the General Slocum as it steamed up the East River at 15 knots toward Long Island Sound, headed for Locust Grove, a picnic ground on Long Island’s North Shore, about two hours away.
February 3, 2012
He called himself flagellum Dei, the scourge of God, and even today, 1,500 years after his blood-drenched death, his name remains a byword for brutality. Ancient artists placed great stress on his inhumanity, depicting him with goatish beard and devil’s horns. Then as now, he seemed the epitome of an Asian steppe nomad: ugly, squat and fearsome, lethal with a bow, interested chiefly in looting and in rape.
His real name was Attila, King of the Huns, and even today the mention of it jangles some atavistic panic bell deep within civilized hearts. For Edward Gibbon—no great admirer of the Roman Empire that the Huns ravaged repeatedly between 434 and 453 A.D.—Attila was a “savage destroyer” of whom it was said that “the grass never grew on the spot where his horse had trod.” For the Roman historian Jordanes, he was “a man born into the world to shake the nations.” As recently as a century ago, when the British wanted to emphasize how barbarous and how un-English their opponents in the First World War had grown—how very far they had fallen short in their sense of honor, justice and fair play—they called the Germans “Huns.”