Sunday read: It’s a world, world, world, world Mad

It is impossible to imagine a world without Mad magazine.

Though it now exists as a brand name on primarily archival material, there was a time — before “The Daily Show,” before “The Simpsons,” before “Saturday Night Live” and “National Lampoon” and “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” — when Mad was the most popular, and most influential, humor source in the country. It was Mad that, in a time of mostly gentle mainstream humor, was willing to tell kids and teens (and thoughtful adults), Watch out.

“When Mad came about, it was the reaffirmation of those feelings in print. We were saying, ‘Kids, Madison Avenue is lying to you. Your parents are lying to you. The president is lying to you,’” recalled longtime Mad editor Al Feldstein in 2007.

I’m biased, of course. I was one of the many sucked in by Mad, starting officially with the July 1975 issue with “Airport 1975” on the cover (though there’s a picture of me as an infant reading, or staring at, the September 1965 issue) and continuing for … well, though I stopped buying the magazine as a teenager, I still dip into it from time to time, courtesy the CD-ROM collection Broderbund put out in 1999. (Cheap!)

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Sunday read: The Hammer and the man

Photo by Focus On Sport/Getty Images via NBCNews.com.

Many years ago, when I was free-lancing for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, my editor asked me to provide the copy for a special section on the Boy Scouts. Most of the article pitches we discussed were fairly low-key, ranging from a profile of a local Scout-oriented exhibition to a talk with Eagle Scouts. But one stopped me in my tracks: Could I call Hank Aaron, a Scout growing up, and get his thoughts on Scouting?

A dirty little journalist’s secret — well, MY dirty little journalist secret — is that making cold calls is a knee-knocking affair. It’s your job to approach complete strangers, and sometimes those complete strangers are celebrities whose gatekeepers can hold you off for the foreseeable future while you pursue your one necessary quote or response. Call Hank Aaron? I was shivering with anxiety.

So it took me some time to get up the nerve to call the Atlanta Braves corporate office, where Aaron was an executive, and ask to speak to him. I fully expected the secretary to tell me that Mr. Aaron wasn’t available, and could I leave a message, and I would never hear back. Why would Hank Aaron want to talk about his boyhood as a Boy Scout?

Instead, she put me right through and Aaron got on the line. I honestly don’t remember much of what he said, only that he was thrilled to say it — Scouting really had made a difference for a black boy in Jim Crow-era Mobile, Alabama — as he regaled me with tales of walking to Scout meetings and taking part in activities. For me, who only perceived him as a taciturn slugger and Hall of Famer, it was interview heaven. I would think about it every time I passed Hank Aaron Stadium off I-65 in Mobile when I traveled from Atlanta to visit my parents in New Orleans.

And now Hank Aaron is gone. He died Friday, in his sleep, at age 86. Hank Aaron, the first hitter listed in the Baseball Encyclopedia, still the all-time leader in RBIs and total bases, barely second in HRs, third in hits (a great detail: if you take away Aaron’s 755 home runs, he still has 3,000 hits), the namesake of the award that goes to each league’s top hitter, the incredibly consistent, classy, coolly understated Hank Aaron — Hank Aaron has passed.

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Sunday read: The losses of 2020

Every year, The New York Times Magazine runs an issue it calls “The Lives They Lived” on the last Sunday of the year. The issue is devoted to highlighting some of the people who passed in the year previous, both the famed and the footnotes.

Well, it’s the last Sunday of the year, and right on schedule, here’s “The Lives They Lived.” It’s my Sunday read.

You’ll know some of the names — Tom Seaver, the legendary Mets pitcher; Chadwick Boseman, the “Black Panther” actor who died, far too young, of colon cancer; Helen Reddy, the celebrated singer. But you’ll also learn about Mimi Jones, who became momentarily famous during the Civil Rights movement for one shocking photograph, and James Harvey, a movie critic’s movie critic.

That’s the joy of “The Lives They Lived,” and the sadness, too — that it takes a special issue of the NYT Magazine to give many of these lives the proper consideration.

Take a little time and read it here.

Alex Trebek, 1940-2020

Image from Jeopardy Productions.

More than 30 years ago, “a student from New Orleans, Louisiana” — that would be me — appeared on “Jeopardy!” In the time since, whenever people find out about my quiz show claim to fame, they have two questions: “How did you do?” And: “What is Alex Trebek really like?”

The first question has a simple answer. In an exciting game, I went into Final Jeopardy with a narrow lead over the second-place challenger, missed the question, and left with some nice parting gifts, including a case of Pepsodent and several packages of dried prunes.

Entering the “Jeopardy!” lair in 1987.

The second was much harder, for Trebek — then in just his third year of hosting — had a reputation for standoffishness. In my very limited experience, he appeared only when the show started taping, kept to himself during the commercial breaks, and exchanged some small talk with us after the match was over. He seemed perfectly pleasant, very polished, and smart in a quiet sort of way. It would be years before his more casual, fun-loving side would come out on the show.

Alex Trebek died Sunday. He was 80. His death was not unexpected — he had announced last year that he was receiving treatment for pancreatic cancer, had taken short breaks because of that treatment, and said in interviews that he sometimes hosted the show in incredible pain — but it is still a tremendous loss.

I know it is for me, a longtime game show fan and player.

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Sunday read: Sean Connery and Alden Whitman

Sean Connery died Saturday. He was 90.

I was going to write a blog entry just about the great Scot, but what more could I say? He was the best James Bond. (Ian Fleming even gave Bond a Scottish background after seeing Connery’s performance; before that, the Bond author had been against his casting.) He had incredible presence, enough that he could get away with his Scottish accent even when playing Russians and Irishmen. He was Indiana Jones’ father.

But I decided, for once, to leave the obituary writing and appreciations to others.

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Sunday read: Three pieces from a writer you’ve probably never heard of

So many stories. So much talent.

Such a great loss.

Jim Dwyer died Thursday. He was just 64.

Now, you’ve probably never heard of Jim Dwyer. If you’re a thorough reader of The New York Times, you know he wrote the “About New York” column for the Paper of Record, but it’s the kind of column that most national readers of the Times probably skip. In the days when newspapers ruled the world, he may have been syndicated, like his Gotham brethren Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, or Chicago’s Mike Royko, but the Times tended to focus its syndicated love on its op-ed columnists, so New York-centric writers like Dwyer were left to the locals.

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Eddie Van Halen, 1955-2020

Image from Getty via Rolling Stone.

I was not a Van Halen fan.

This made me unusual among my generation. I entered high school in 1978, when the band released its debut album, and their music was inescapable well into my college years. The local AOR station played “Dance the Night Away” and “And the Cradle Will Rock” enough to wear holes in the grooves; MTV pretty much ran cuts from “1984” nonstop. Van Halen was one of the towering groups of my demographic.

But, in general, it wasn’t my kind of rock. I thought it sounded kinda dumb and flashy and not at all what a ’60s/New Wave-besotted teen listened to. (At least this one.)

But I was, and remain, an Eddie Van Halen fan.

How could I not be? The guy was a genuine guitar wizard, capable of making sounds only imagined by his peers, with speed and dexterity to burn.

And underneath those chops — on display in “Eruption,” “Hot for Teacher,” and the solo to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” among many others — there was genuine soul. He wasn’t a speedfingers for the sake of speed; there was real heart underneath that tapping and bending.

Van Halen died Tuesday of cancer. He was 65.

His work may have been dazzling, but the man himself was rather reserved. My friend Denise Quan had the opportunity to interview Van Halen more than once, and reported that, in person, he was the antithesis to the image of a hard-partying rock star — thoughtful and soft-spoken. (Indeed, he was known to spend hours on tour simply playing guitar in his hotel room. David Lee Roth, on the other hand …) Indeed, he even invented an indestructible instrument, the Wolfgang, to resist the wear-and-tear he gave conventional (that is, non-Eddie Van Halen-created or -altered) guitars.

So I may not have had “Van Halen II” on repeat, but I had (and have) a huge respect for the band’s lead guitarist. He loved the music, and spoke best through his work.

As he told Denise, “Believe it or not, I really don’t have much to say — ’cause the equipment speaks for itself. And so does the music.”

No question about that.

Bob Gibson, 1935-2020

Image from Getty via The New York Times.

One-twelve.

Every baseball fan knows certain numbers. 56. 755. (Sorry, Barry Bonds.) .406. 383. 511.

And 1.12.

That was Bob Gibson’s earned-run average in 1968 — a hair more than a run per nine innings. Gibson had 34 starts in 1968 and gave up more than 3 runs in exactly two of them. (One of those games was against the Dodgers in September. Had he pitched better (!), his ERA may have been below 1.1.) He had 13 shutouts. His ERAs in June and July were 0.50.

Gibson died Friday. The great St. Louis Cardinals pitcher was 84.

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Tom Seaver, 1944-2020

Tom Seaver was my hero.

In this I was not exceptional. If you were a boy growing up in the New York area in the late ’60s and early ’70s — if you were a Mets fan — of course Tom Seaver was your hero. He was the Rookie of the Year, the Cy Young winner, the handsome, knee-dirtying fastball thrower from Fresno, the heart of the ever-exciting, ever-Amazin’ Miracle Mets of 1969.

I was 4 when the Mets won that World Series, and I think I attended my first game at Shea two years later. But I feel like I always knew who Tom Seaver was, even when I was too young to pronounce “Tom Seaver.”

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