Tag Archives: Al Capone

Of Disruptors and Keyholes

Recently the brand new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson, suspended parliament at a moment in history that portends a possible keyhole event: a “Hard Brexit” is about to occur.  Technically the term is prorogue.  That is to say: “Johnson has prorogued Parliament.”  He simply sent them home for a few weeks.  Although not all that uncommon for a new government – it comes shortly after his placement as PM – the timing has made many Brits uncomfortable, to say the least.

One supposes that my writing has been sort of prorogued of late – not much publishing anyhow.  I don’t think many readers are uncomfortable about that. 

You can look back through a keyhole, but you can’t go back through one

I have a pair of terms for events that are so transformational that things can never return to the way they were; not even ways of thinking can return: Wormholes and Keyholes. Either way, when we pass through them – either as individuals, families, communities, cultures, countries or the entire world – a new reality emerges.

A possible alternative to keyhole and wormhole is “Rubicon”; or the full phrase “crossing the Rubicon.”  Way back in 49 BCE, a Roman general named Gaius (of the patrician clan “Julia”) took his powerful and famously successful army across the River Rubicon. When he did, he also created a keyhole through which he, his army, and Roman culture passed and could never return.

Rubicon: Reality was irreversibly changed.  A civil war ensued.  At its conclusion, there was no more Roman Republic, although it had endured nearly 500 years with a slight flavor of democracy.  It was replaced with the Roman Empire, to be led by a sovereign head of state named “Caesar” (the first one being the aforementioned general).

“Crossing the Rubicon” is a term that means total commitment, and no turning back. You’ve gone through the keyhole. Although, for Julius Caesar, there was an strong element of personal choice in the matter. That’s not always the case.

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Using the theme of keyholes, I will touch upon many a quaint and curious story of forgotten lore [1], including brief biographical glances at the lives of three individuals.

These are but three people among countless.  Passing through the same keyhole in history.  An entire nation of millions was transformed by that keyhole, through which nothing – no person and no part of American culture – could return to their previous state … forever transformed. These three people made history because of their transformations – and society’s – brought about by a major disruption to American national culture.

  1. Hattie had a sweet personality and an even sweeter voice.  And she had a quality of magnetic personality mixed with pizzazz, or panache.  Today the name “Hattie” is rather obscure – in fact, it almost completely disappeared in the 1950s and ‘60s.  It was not an uncommon name at all across American cultures in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Hattie Caraway (ARK) was the 1st woman elected to the US Senate, in 1932. Our Hattie was born in Wichita, Kansas, to parents who had been slaves.  Although the name Hattie would later virtually disappear, her own name would not.
  2. Born and raised of pure German descent, Henry hailed from the German neighborhoods on the southside of the great beer-making city of St Louis.  But he usually went by the nickname “Heinie” (or “Heine”), since it was German and rhymed with his last name: Meine.  Of course, it was Americanized to “High-nee My-nee”; you can’t get a much more memorable name.  Nonetheless, he’s virtually forgotten, although Heinie came through the keyhole and left his name in the record books. 
  3. A first generation Italian-American, he preferred to go by “Al” rather than his given “Alphonse.”  Born and raised in Brooklyn, he’d make his name in Chicago. Known for many things – including feeding over 100,000 Chicagoans each day during the Great Depression’s early years –  Al was not known for being very faithful to his wife. That’s too bad, because she was extraordinarily faithful and loyal to him.  At least he was loyal: he treated her well and never spoke poorly of her. That, and his Depression-era food lines, are among the few good qualities we can credit to him.
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On a geological scale, the biggest disruptor to life on earth was almost certainly when the 12-mile diameter Chicxulub Asteroid slammed into the earth at 40,000 kilometers per hour, near the Yucatan peninsula (modern day Mexico) about 66 million years ago.  Scientific estimates of the energy released approached one trillion (1,000,000,000,000) Hiroshima atomic bombs.

The asteroid event is probably the biggest reason, among many, that between 99.9% and 99.999% of the all species that have ever lived are now extinct.

Dinosaurs had ruled the earth; they had for some 250 million years through advanced evolution which tracked the earth’s warming climate. (Consider how far humans have evolved from advanced apes in less than 1/1000th the time).  For most of those many millions of ”dinosaur” years, the earth was generally a very warm, even rather tropical, CO2 rich environment.  Literally, in a very few years (perhaps a handful) all had changed.  The world, relatively speaking, became a frigidly cold “ice box.” 

The asteroid, as agent of disruption, had altered reality so suddenly, and so irreversibly, that the world and its reality was forever immediately changed.  We should be thankful.  That stupendously, mind-boggling cataclysmic event permitted the survival and prominence of tiny mammals – and eventually to us: we humans and our many friends like horses, dogs, cats – over dozens of millions of years.

I should hesitate to even suggest candidates for “disruptors” in the human era – especially in our post-industrial age era.  But, eventually we must get to our three protagonists:  Hattie, Heinie and Alphonse.  Therefore, I submit some examples, starting with —ta da – the internet.  It has spawned on-line commerce and “the sharing  economy.”

The “sharing economy” starts with the simple idea that we, as humans in a free-market economy, have assets that are lying dormant. In economists’ terms: non-performing assets.  Our houses. Our cars. Our time.  The sharing economy idea suggests we can put those assets to work. Over just a very few years, this simple idea has disrupted how we consume, travel, commute and vacation.  Many of us now think of Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, CrowdFunding as powerful and preferred alternatives to “traditional business models.”  The value of Taxi Cab medallions in New York City has fallen by some 85% since their peak value of $1.3 Million in 2013. Entire industries must now behave differently – or die.

The sharing economy has been co-joined on the internet with our lust for connectivity and ease. Amazon has put booksellers out of business. Thanks to the internet, we often now shop in the comfort of our homes, in front of our computers – often clad only in our underwear (if we are dressed at all – sorry for the visual).

Merchandise is delivered to our front door, sometimes within hours – while many old and drab strip malls slowly, silently go vacant and “turn-over”, their dull slots replaced by the equivalent of pre-human mammals that are mostly just cheap “creature comforts”: nail salons, micro-liquor stores, tattoo and/or piercing parlors, micro-breweries, tobacco-friendly stores, massage parlors, pot shops (where legal), second-hand and antique shops, etc. And that’s if the vacant spaces are filled at all.  There is no telling which will survive to coming generations, if at all: evolution, disruption and their effects have their ways of being unpredictable… that is their very nature. [2]

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In American culture, looking back over the past 125 years, or so, I cannot think of any more forceful disruptor – outside of the Internet, the Depression, and the Great Wars – than Prohibition.

Prohibition. The 18th Amendment. The Volstead Act. The culmination of decades of effort by the Temperance Movement, the Women’s Movement, and Cultural Conservatives. 

I’m sort of a fan of Prohibition. Why? It was, in effect, a vast significant social scientific experiment.   It made being anti-government-control very cool.  It made counter-culture cool. It made “shoving it in The-Man’s-face” cool.   For many cultural icons and movements – from the obvious, like craft beer brewing and craft alcohol distilling, to the Beatniks, to Elvis, to The Stones, to Jay-Zee, to tattoos, to piercings, to sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll, sexual licentiousness, the prevalence of Sugar Daddies, and even NASCAR, (America’s most popular spectator sport) – Prohibition helped paved the way.

To me, on balance, those are good things. But every die comes with many sides: it also gave more profit and respectability to the mafia and the underworld. 

Our protagonists: In order of how famous they are today:

#1. In 1913, Young Al dropped out of school at 14, after slugging his teacher.  He then worked odd jobs while falling in with various young gangs of hoodlums.  Eventually, he got connected to the local mobs, and began working his way up the mob ladder – getting a nasty razor gash across a cheek in one episode – before finally getting in so much trouble that he was sent off to a different “branch of the business” in Chicago, along with his wife (the one he was not quite “totally committed” to) and young son.

Propitious timing: Prohibition was about to start.  Chicago is where Alphonse – Al Capone and Scarface to us – made it big. Really big.  Prohibition provided almost unlimited opportunity to make money … either through booze itself or through protection schemes.  Capone inherited the top position of a major Chicago crime syndicate, at age 26, when boss Johnny Torino retired and went home to Sicily.

After various deals and “take outs”, like the 1929 Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, Capone’s gang ruled supreme in Chicago and Cook County. 

Al Capone, king of Chicago ~1926-1931

“Scarface” (a nickname he hated) escaped criminal conviction many times.  But Prohibition Agent Elliot Ness and the government finally got him on income tax evasion; his lifestyle and braggadocio were just too conspicuous during a time such as the Great Depression.  Yes, he daily fed many thousands in the early years of the Depression.  But everything ended on October 17, 1931, when Capone was found guilty and sentenced to 11 years in federal prison.

While in prison – eventually at Alcatraz – Capone’s old cronies in the Chicago mob did quite well.  But he didn’t fair so well himself, even though he was released for “good behavior” after serving only about 7 years of his term.  It turns out his good behavior was probably because he developed advanced dementia caused by syphilis. Evidently it had been attacking his nervous system since his teens – considering that his only son, Alphonse Jr, was born with congenital syphilis.

Capone’s wife, Mae, remained loyal, and took great care of him until his demise, in 1947, only one week after his 48th birthday.  He was probably not aware of that or much else, as he was given to talking to inanimate things and people not present.  Their son Al Jr, an only child – who lived quite deaf since infancy on account of surgery for syphilis-caused infections – changed his name to “Albert Brown” in 1966, to distance himself from the infamy of his father. “Brown” was an alias his father had sometimes used.

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2) In 1895 came Hattie McDaniel into this world. She was the 13th and last child born to Susan and Henry McDaniel, both former slaves. Her father was a freed slave, who fought in the Civil War and suffered the rest of his life from war injuries.

Originally from Wichita, Kansas, the family moved to Ft Collins, then Denver, Colorado seeking opportunity – as Henry had a difficult time with manual labor on account of his war injury – about the time young Hattie was 5 or 6.  There, in school and in church, her phenomenal musical skills were discovered. 

By age 14 she had a professional singing and dancing career … and she also dropped out of Denver East High School.  As feature vocalists for various bands, mostly Blues, Hattie had made something of a name for herself.

In 1930 she found herself in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as part of a traveling theatre troupe on the Show Boat production. Then, disaster:  The Depression struck. The show and tour were abruptly canceled, leaving Hattie and the rest of the cast abandoned … and nowhere near home.

Hattie found employment as a restroom attendant at Club Madrid, a not-so-secret speakeasy run by Chicago gangster Sam Pick, just outside Milwaukee’s city limits, and just across the county line. Why there? Because that jurisdiction was largely rural and had virtually no police force. Prohibition was still in effect. 

Club Madrid was famous for great entertainment, as well as a great stash of alcohols.  It was a place to visit and be seen for politicians, high rolling businessmen and other wealthy gangsters.

Word had gotten around Club Madrid that Hattie was extremely talented; but Madrid was a “whites only” establishment. They kept her in the restroom.  Until one night when an act didn’t show.  Desperate to keep the lubricated and influential guests engaged, Sam brought out Hattie.  She brought the house down … and did so for over a year.  Her income and notoriety soared.

Whereupon her skills as a performer were noticed by Hollywood.  She’d go on to a rich film career of over a decade, most notably as Mammy in Gone With the Wind.  In perfect Hattie pose and poise, she was virtually “playing herself” as the only truly likeable and reasonable person in the entire saga. 

Hattie McDaniel was honored by the US Post Office with her image on a stamp, 2005

For that performance she was justly awarded an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.  Hattie McDaniel was the first Black to receive an academy nomination, and the first to win an Oscar.  Bravo Hattie.

She remained popular, and used that popularity to serve in World War II, entertaining troops and performing at War Bond rallies. 

At the end of the war the role of blacks in America was about to dramatically change. Truman integrated the military with a stroke of his pen.  There was a loud popular cry to end the stereotyping of black characters as obsequious, simple-minded submissives in movies. The cry was heard.  Unfortunately for Hattie, she had already been well typecast into such roles, and her Hollywood career faded.

Not so for radio, and Hattie signed on to play a maid on the nationally popular regular radio show Beulah.  Another first: she was the first black to have a weekly appearance on any media. [3] Her years were running out, however.  Too young and too late she was discovered to have breast cancer, and she succumbed in 1952, aged only 57.

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And #3. Henry “Heinie” Meine is surely the least famous of the three who actually achieved a significant level of fame.  Born in Saint Louis in 1896, he was a sports enthusiast who took to baseball well.  He played a lot of local sand-lot and then semi-pro ball as a young man, mostly as a spit balling pitcher.

By 1920 word got around that he was pretty good – especially with his favorite pitch: the spitter. He’d been noticed by legendary scout Charles “Charley” Francis Barrett, and he was signed to a minor league contract with the St Louis Browns of the American League.  In 1922 he was called up briefly to his hometown Browns and pitched in one single game — a mop up effort in a late season blow out.  Unfortunately for Heinie, the spitball had been outlawed as an unfair pitch; and was now being enforced. His major league career seemed over.

He bounced around the minor leagues for a while, gaining a reputation for a “rubber arm”; he was kind of an energizer bunny, as he regularly pitched 250-300 innings a season during those years in the minors. Finally, Meine just gave up, retiring at the end of the 1926 season after learning he’d be demoted to the Single-A level for the 1927 season.  It seemed he had no path to the majors, especially without his spitball. There were other options: he intended to make money in his beer-happy hometown of Saint Louis running a Speakeasy. Prohibition provided opportunity.

Like Pick’s Club Madrid,  Meine’s “soda bar” was located just outside the city limits, in a German neighborhood that was known for some reason as Luxemburg. His drinking establishment was so popular, he got the nickname “Duke of Luxemburg.”

When other major league teams came to Saint Louis (the city had two teams then, so it was often), Luxemburg was a frequent stop for refreshment.  After a few drinks the players often teased him about being a good minor league pitcher, but not being good enough to make it in the majors.

This was motivation. He’d show them! After a layoff of nearly two years, Meine returned to baseball. He was determined to make it as a “control pitcher”, one who could make the ball move any direction, who could constantly change speeds and hit any spot on the edge of the strike zone.  He became an early effective “junk” pitcher. He didn’t strike out many batters; they just hit soft grounders and popups. After a couple minor league seasons, he was eventually acquired by the Pittsburgh Pirates. 

As a 33 year-old rookie, Heinie Meine made his major league debut in 1929.  Unheard of even in those days.  After two moderately successful and contentious seasons with the Pirates (including missing much time with a bad case of tonsillitis) he set the baseball world on fire in 1931, leading the league in wins and innings pitched. A phenomenal record for a Pirate team that managed only 75 wins against 79 losses that year.

Henry “Heinie” Meine

Meine was a holdout for the 1932 season – one of the first to successfully do so – demanding more money.  Starting the season over a month late, after a contract renegotiation, he still managed 12 wins and nearly 200 innings.

But Meine was now approaching 37 years old.  His rubber arm was wearing out.  Still, he managed 15 wins and 207 innings in 1933, impressive totals for any age in any era. All the league’s pitchers with more wins than Meine were aged 31, or younger.

The next year, 1934, would be his last, as Meine was getting past his prime.  He still put up a winning record, at 7-6, but he knew the end of his career had come. If he’d stayed for just a small part of the next season, he’d have seen a national superstar who was well past his prime have one last unlikely and very dramatically successful day at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field. A very wobbly 40-year old Babe Ruth hit three home runs in one game in late May … the last three he’d ever hit. Then promptly retired a few days later.

But by then Meine had already retired to run his saloon business full time.  With Prohibition over and his reputation for Gemütlichkeit, Meine’s career as saloon keeper was safe for years to come. And with some thanks to Prohibition and the customers who teased him, he had made his place in baseball’s record books.

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Well dear readers, that was quite a ramble. Perhaps even a Keyhole for you.

I was long overdue for an essay and had a lot of thoughts in my head to somehow string together.

I hope you feel fulfilled and inspired, or at least changed for the better. 

Peace

Joe Girard © 2019

Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for when there is newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing me at Joe@Girardmeister.com.

[1] With apologies to Edgar Allen Poe fans.  Lifted almost verbatim from verse #1 of “The Raven.”

[2] Strip Malls have a rather interesting history in the US (and Canada).  Briefly: The preponderance of Strip Malls exploded in the 1950s in North America, along with the expanding post-war economy and our love affair with cars.  Ubiquitous on the edges of urban areas, and within the new suburban areas, they were a “strip” of available business spaces in a single building with parking in front.  Sometimes “L-shaped”, they lined major and semi-major roads, near residential areas, but seldom near central business districts.

They provided convenient, if not “drab”, space for respectable businesses like pharmacies, butcher shops, barbers, and sellers of fresh produce and groceries … where everyone seemed to know everyone else and friendly chit-chat was interwoven with business. In an America that no longer exists.

But cars got bigger and ever more plentiful.  Available parking for strip malls was too small. So then came the “Big Box” strip malls, with huge parking lots anchored by one or two major retailers, like Walmart, or Home Depot.  The small strip malls lost business, tenants and most public interest.  Also came the super malls … and strip malls were just so-o-o 1950s and ‘60s.

If not already scraped away, strip malls still exist, but ever more with spaces that are vacant, or populated by the likes of businesses I listed above. Always drab.  Always an eyesore.

[3] At about this time, only about 10% of US homes had televisions. Nearly 100% had radios, and people built their daily schedules around radio shows. By 1960, this had reversed: nearly 90% had TVs, and Americans lives revolved around their favorite shows, on only 3 networks.

Regarding Strip Mall history: One of the better sources I found was here.

Other stuff:

Heine Meine Biography: https://everipedia.org/wiki/lang_en/Heine_Meine/

Popularity of name “Hattie”: https://www.behindthename.com/name/hattie/top/united-states