With independence day approaching, this week’s roundup is a treasury of Americana. By which I mean baseball, daredevils, trade disputes, monopolistic business practices, union-busting, trucks, factory farming, and unbridled violence.
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1. Before WWII, chicken in the US was an extravagance. Then came intensive chicken farming and it quickly turned into a staple food both in the US and Europe by the 1950s. The early 1960s, though, were an uneasy time in Euro-American relations. With cheap American chicken flooding Europe, the US was accused of all manner of poultry-based chicken-trade unsavoriness, including dumping chickens at a loss (the Dutch), selling chickens shot up with impotence-inducing hormones (the French), and fattening chickens with arsenic (the Germans). In retaliation for these perceived slights, US chicken imports to Europe were heavily tariffed and BIG CHICKEN profits tanked.
The chicken tariff was so important that the German chancellor claimed half his conversations with JFK were about it, and a US senator once interrupted NATO talks on nuclear disarmament to complain about chicken. By December 1963 there was a Texan in the White House and diplomacy had failed, so LBJ dropped the hammer: a 25% tariff on imports of brandy, dextrin (envelope glue), potato starch, and pickup trucks. Confusingly, this law is still called the chicken tax even though no chickens are taxed. Signed less than two weeks after JFK’s death, I’m now 100% convinced that LBJ was behind the assassination—not to stay in Vietnam like Oliver Stone wants us to believe, but because he was in the pocket of BIG ENVELOPE.
Why this bizarre hodgepodge of products? Not totally clear, except that the pickup truck tariff was a quid pro quo with the auto workers union and the big three auto manufacturers, who had promised to support LBJ’s civil rights platform and whose full-size pickups were being kicked off the market by smaller VW bus/hybrids.
Quick history: pickup trucks really took off in the 1930s after Ford introduced the first pickup that didn’t require customer assembly. By the 1950s large American trucks were increasingly facing competition from smaller, lighter Japanese and European trucks. The chicken tax, then, essentially closed off the American market to small-truck (read: non-US) producers by artificially raising their cost, while simultaneously giving US producers absolutely no reason at all to develop or sell low-margin small trucks.
Every law has loopholes, though, including the chicken tax/pickup tariff. Some trucks were imported in two separate pieces then welded together in the US, thereby avoiding the tax. Some companies eventually gave up and built US production facilities. Perhaps most creative was the Subaru BRAT (Bi-Drive Recreational All-Terrain Transporter), which famously had jump seats in the cargo bed, thereby making it a “car” for purposes of the chicken tax and “lethal” otherwise (other companies also pulled the same trick, but removed the jump seats before sale).
The chicken tax is still in effect, by the by, though globalization and outsourcing has led to dizzying Kafkaesque inversions of its intent. For example, when production of the smaller Ford Ranger moved overseas, Ford was faced with paying the tariff on their now-imported model. So Rangers are now sold everywhere in the world…except the US. Ford also has a plant in Baltimore that imports trucks with extra parts attached to avoid the tariff; the plant does nothing but remove the parts, shred them, and send the trucks out for sale. Reminder once again that the chicken tax was instituted to help Ford.
Brief pickup history:
ca 1918: “Pickup” trucks are introduced as an customer add-on package. No one can decide where the name pickup comes from nor exactly what it means.
1990: Chevy licenses “Like a Rock”, rejuvenates Bob Seger and American masculinity in one fell swoop
2. Robert “Evel” Knievel, daredevil and motorcyclist, died in 2007 at the age of 69. After dropping out of high school, he began working in the copper mines of Montana. He lost that job—no joke—after doing a wheelie with an earth-mover and severing the main power line to Butte, plunging the city into blackout. That mixture of success and failure was to be a Knievel signature. He later started a semi-pro hockey team, finagling his way into an exhibition match with the Czechoslovakian national team before the 1960 Olympics. He was ejected from the game and absconded with the gate; the US had to pay the Czechs out of pocket to avoid a diplomatic incident (again, this actually happened).
After a foray into insurance sales, by the mid 1960s he’d become a motorcycle daredevil, attempting more than 75 jumps and breaking more than 430 bones. This wonderful table lists out every one of them, and includes both the outcome and what he jumped over (entries include rattlesnakes, a speeding motorcycle—that jump was mistimed and the bike hit him in the groin, 13 Pepsi trucks, sharks, and my favorite, “100 rattlesnakes and 2 vans”. He’s best known, of course, for his failed attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon in Idaho using a rocket-cycle. He’s less well-known for an abortive attempt at action movie-stardom: the movie Viva Knievel!, in which he played himself.
Viva Knievel! was playing at the bar on Saturday night, with no sound, and I watched the last hour of it. Here is my summary of the plot, from what I could piece together: Leslie Nielsen plans to assassinate Knievel during his jump. But before Knievel can make it, he’s attacked and knocked unconscious. The attacker suits up and makes the jump in his place. He successfully lands but the bike is rigged to fail (again, assassination plot), causing him to lose control and be killed (the crowd believes this to be Knievel). Leslie Nielsen orders the body put back in the tour bus and takes off. Knievel wakes up, hops on his Stratocycle, and rolls up to a mental hospital. When I say “rolls up” I mean he literally drives up the stairs, crashes through the doors, and drives down the hallway. This is now my favorite scene in the history of cinema. There he meets Gene Kelly, apparently a patient (probably not playing himself). They get on their bikes and chase down Leslie Nielsen and save the day. The movie scores 2.6/10 on IMDb and I wholeheartedly recommend it, assuming you watch with no sound and like luxuriant hair (chest and head). FYI, the actual plot summary is more ludicrous than I inferred.
3. Speaking of breaking people out of mental institutions, The A-Team ran for 5 seasons and 98 episodes, premiering after the Super Bowl in 1983 and lasting until 1987. The show’s iconic opening narration best describes it:
Here’s the thing: the “crime they didn’t commit” thing is some bullshit. The backstory, finally revealed in season 4, is that the A-Team were special ops in Vietnam and had been ordered to rob the bank of Hanoi. In that old spy-genre cliche, their commanding officer was murdered and HQ burned, leaving no record of their orders. So they are court-martialed, escape from the aforementioned maximum security stockade to the aforementioned LA underground, and live as mercenaries. OK, but they actually did commit the crime. The A-Team were war criminals. I feel so lied to.
Going by memory, the bulk of each episode is taken up by some combination of a) breaking Murdock out of a mental hospital, 2) tricking Mr. T into drinking a glass of drugged milk to get him onto a plane, d) suave conman Templeton “Face” Peck spitting game, often successfully, at the only woman on that week’s show, or 5) developing an elaborate costume for Hannibal. I was never clear on how Murdock can be in a government mental institution while the entire team is lamming from…the government.
One of the more interesting critical takes on The A-Team is that it represents the culmination of normalizing the Vietnam War in American culture. Following critical, trenchant works like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now, The A-Team is unambiguous jingoistic wish-fulfillment: the brash, irascible good guys heroically fighting against murky, bureaucratic authority figures and winning the day. The violence is sanitized (actual death and serious injury are rare, despite the show’s predilection for gun play and car crashes), and so is the morality (and so is Murdock’s severe mental illness, for that matter). Incidentally, that review is from Mary Harron, who would go on to direct American Psycho, which is of note inasmuch as it uses incredibly unsanitized violence to (in part) satirize the normalization of greed and amorality in the very Reagan’s America where the A-Team operates.
Best A-Team episode titles: Mexican Slayride (wonderfully, this was the pilot), The Maltese Cow, Say it with Bullets, Chopping Spree, Lease with an Option to Die, Bullets and Bikinis, The Rabbit who ate Las Vegas, and Mission of Peace.
4. Ed Delahanty made his professional baseball debut on May 22, 1888 with the Philadelphia Quakers. He went on to a Hall of Fame career and to lead the league in batting average (twice), home runs (twice), RBI (thrice), and stolen bases (once), and once hit four inside-the-park home runs in a single game. He was good. Baseball writer Craig Calcaterra once called “Big Ed” the most 19th-century baseball player. Why? Because he a) played for the Quakers, 2) played in 1890 for the inexplicably named Cleveland Infants* (amazing names on that roster include Cinders O’Brien, Patsy Tebeau, and Pop Snyder), d) was signed by the Quakers because their starting second baseman had died of typhoid fever, and 5) his bizarre death.
*The Infants were part of the short-lived Players’ League, which formed when the aggrieved players’ union spun off their own league. Their one season of play included a team called the Buffalo Bisons. The Federal League, which lasted for two seasons (1914-1915) was not created by union members, but competition with the American and National League helped to increase salaries (teams included the Brooklyn Tip-Tops and Newark Peppers). The Federal League is best known for having brought an antitrust lawsuit against the major leagues, a suit initially assigned to future baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. He refused to rule and the Federal League was swallowed up. It wasn’t until 1922 that a court finally ruled that because baseball was primarily entertainment, the leagues were exempt from antitrust laws.
On July 2, 1903, Big Ed—by then estranged from his wife and beset with money, gambling, and drinking problems—was on a train bound for New York. He was kicked off on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls for threatening other passengers with a straight razor. While crossing the bridge into the US on foot, he was accosted by a watchman. Following a scuffle, he either jumped or drunkenly fell from the bridge, landed in the river, and tragically went over the falls.
A woefully incomplete list of pre-1950 baseball player names/nicknames: Urban Shocker, Percival Rising, Cletus “Boots” Poffenberger, Van Lingle Mungo, Leslie “Toots” Tietje, William “Boileryard” Clarke, Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown, James “Pud” Galvin, Burleigh Grimes (and as if the name wasn’t enough, his nickname was Ol’ Stubblebeard), Elton “Icebox” Chamberlain, Ledell “Cannonball” Titcomb, Lloyd “Little Poison” Waner, Paul “Big Poison” Waner, Robert “Death to Flying Things” Ferguson (from a time before pith was necessary; called that because he was adept at catching fly balls), Frank “The Piano Mover” Smith, Charlie “Piano Legs” Hickman. Also, at one point Lou Gehrig’s nickname was Biscuit Pants. True story.