Tuesday, August 17, 2010

When Baseball Was Fun: Remembering Smokey Maxwell

My mother recently spent a week with us here at the lake cottage in Maine, and while she was here she and I spent a good deal of time talking about our family history in and around Paw Paw, Michigan and rural Van Buren County. After she returned home to Florida I went to the local library in New Gloucester to do some additional research and came across an interesting newspaper article in the Kalamazoo Gazette. It took me back to my younger days when I was spending quite a bit of time on my grandparent’s farm outside of Paw Paw.

This past Sunday, Paw Paw honored one of its local legends, a two-day celebration commemorating the life of and career of Charlie “Smokey” Maxwell, one of baseball’s greats from a much-missed bygone era when players truly played “for the love of the game;” a time when young kids looked up to these guys as role models. Maxwell is a native son in the truest sense, and it is only fitting that he be honored by his hometown. He was inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame, in 1997, but hometown honors trump that in my book.

Charles Richard Maxwell was born in Lawton, just a few miles south of Paw Paw, on April 8, 1927. He grew up in the area and played college baseball at Western Michigan University, in nearby Kalamazoo until he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1945. Following his stint in the military, he played a few years of minor league ball in Roanoke, Birmingham and Louisville before he went to the show in 1950 as a southpaw utility left-fielder for the Boston Red Sox through the 1954 season. He played very briefly (four at bats) with the Baltimore Orioles, during the 1955 season, before going to left field for the Detroit Tigers in May where he was in the starting line-up for the first time. He would play the next eight seasons, through 1962, with the Tigers and it was during this tenure that he picked up his additional nicknames of “Ole Paw Paw,” “Sunday Punch,” “Sunday Charlie,” and “The Sunday Smasher.”

Living with my grandparents and attending the one-room Acorn School in 1955-1956, I became a Detroit fan almost by osmosis. Just about everyone in Michigan supported the Tigers back in those days. And besides, I had lived briefly off of Six Mile Road in Detroit when I was a wee tyke. It was a venerable charter American League franchise, one of eight major league teams, in 1901. Tiger Stadium, its home turf, was opened in 1912 and would host the team until its final season there, in 1999 (at that time tied with Fenway Park, which opened the same day, as the oldest major league ballpark). The Tigers would be the first team I ever rooted for and regardless of the intervening years and occasional shifting alliances as I moved around the country, the Tigers would always reside in a soft spot in my heart.

Smokey Maxwell and Al Kaline, known affectionately as “Mr. Tiger” after 21 seasons with the team when he retired in 1974, were my favorite players back then. They played left and right field respectively and were two of the most popular players on the team. Kaline was the star, leading the American League in batting average in 1955 while coming in second after Mickey Mantle in all the other batting statistics. But I was a little kid and statistics did not mean anything to me. Maxwell was my favorite because he came from Paw Paw and most of my relatives knew and grew up with him. That said, Maxwell had his best year in the majors in 1956. A power hitter, he came in third with a batting average of .326 (just behind Mantle and Ted Williams) and 28 home runs. He also made it to the All Star Team for the first time (a feat he would repeat in 1957). Unfortunately, the Tigers would end the season in fifth place both years.

We were living in Wisconsin in 1957 when the Milwaukee Braves won the National League pennant and went on to beat the Yankees in seven games in the World Series. I guess I am a fickle fan; I started to cheer for the Braves. But I never truly gave up on my first love - the Tigers. And Smokey Maxwell remained one of my favorite players. He went on to lead the American League in fielding percentages in 1957 and again in 1960 when he made only one error in each of those seasons.

I saw my first major league game in 1958 when my dad and I drove from Toledo, Ohio, where we were living at the time, up to Detroit Stadium (another iconic stadium lost to the wrecking ball just a year ago) to watch the Tigers play the New York Yankees. You know, I can’t remember who won that game, but I do remember Mantle and Whitey Ford hitting homers over Maxwell’s head and the distant left field fence. I only wish I could have been at the May 3, 1959 double-header between the Tigers and the Yankees (yes, it was a Sunday) when “Sunday Charlie” hit four consecutive home runs (one in the opener and three in the second game). That would have been sweet! He would go on to hit 31 dingers that year.

Maxwell was eventually traded to the rival Chicago White Sox in 1962 and played there for two seasons until his retirement in April 1964 at the age of 38. He played 14 seasons (1,133 games) in the majors with a career batting average of .264 with 148 home runs. Of these, 40 were hit on a Sunday hence his several nicknames. More importantly, 23 of his homers were against the Yankees!! He also chalked up a career 532 RBIs, 856 hits, and only 25 errors. Unfortunately, Maxwell never made it to the World Series although the Tigers came close a couple of times when he was playing for the team.

How are the Tigers faring this season? They are playing .500 ball and they are in the middle of the pack in the American League Central Division, behind the Minnesota Twins and the Chicago White Sox. Save a miracle they are out of contention again this year.

Even though Charlie “Smokey” Maxwell played with different teams during
his career, he settled in Paw Paw in 1952 and continued to call it home throughout his career. It was there that he returned after he retired, becoming a local businessman selling automotive parts. He still lives there today, at age 83, although he does spend his winters in Florida. Smokey Maxwell and his fellow players were not just the “boys of summer” playing ball on multi-million dollar contracts. He worked in a manufacturing job in Jackson, Michigan during the off season just to make ends meet. During the recent celebration in his hometown, Maxwell was asked why he played baseball. His answer was quite simple - “Because it was fun.” What more is there to say?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Living in the Past: Rediscovering "Retro Beers"

“Happy and I’m smiling, / walk a mile to drink your water. / You know I’d love no other, / and above you there’s no other.” These are the opening lyrics to “Living in the Past,” by Ian Anderson, which first appeared on Jethro Tull’s 1969 album “Stand Up" (it was also the title track for the 1972 double compilation album with the same title). This has been one of my favorite Tull tunes since I first became a fan of this seminal British blues/rock band back in 1969. Ian Anderson, lead singer, flautist and band factotum, turned 63 three days ago, and I have been humming this tune quite a bit lately as I sit by the lake.

Each summer I drive hundreds of miles between Maryland and Maine, a trip that brings with it the opportunity to drink the pure local water. This includes the proffering of Poland Spring, which is located just a few miles north of our cottage. There is also the growing variety of micro-brew beers produced throughout the state using this very same water as one of it their key ingredients. A few of these beers have found markets throughout New England, but they are few and far between once you get south of Boston. So, if I am spending my summers in Maine, and since scientists are now telling us that beer hydrates better than water (I am not making this up), I have taken these opportunities to drink the local stuff.

I figured this would be the case when we returned to Maine again this summer. I stopped by the local roadhouse on my first beer run and ended up passing over the micro-brews for a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon 16 ounce tall boys. It has now become my official “Beer of the Summer.” I like PBR, the “American Style Premium Lager” that I cut my beer drinking teeth on. I was living just outside of Milwaukee the year I reached legal drinking age, and the rest is history. A couple of years later I was back in Milwaukee for the summer and I worked a night shift. The group I worked with would often get off work at the end of the week and have breakfast at a local IHOP and then go downtown to the Pabst brewery for a tour and “brunch” in the tasting room. PBR was also our beer of choice when we went to see the Brewers play in the Old County Stadium. PBR and I go way back!

I am not setting any precedent here by choosing one of the old brand name beers. The first summer we spent in Maine back in 1988 I was drinking Narragansett out of the can. I had heard of this legendary New England beer yet I had never had the opportunity to drink it before. It was not bad and it got me through that first summer before I began to discover and sample the offerings of the local Maine breweries.

What goes around comes around. After years of drinking the micro-brews, perhaps it is time to return to the gold standard . . . even if the old names are a little tarnished these days. They are coming back slowly but surely. Over the past year I have begun to see PBR available in most stores, and more recently I am seeing it on tap in bars and even available in cans in some top shelf eating established around the country. And why not. PBR has a long and distinguished history. Founded in Milwaukee in 1844 (before Wisconsin gained statehood), it took the name of Pabst in 1889 at a time when other breweries were established in the city. During the Depression the company turned to other pursuits, including cheese production. It eventually fell on hard times, as did many other local breweries, and operations were moved to San Antonio. The venerable Milwaukee brewery we came to love was abandoned and fell into disrepair, and it was finally demolished in 2007. The company that brews PBR today owns the rights to the name and trademark, and regardless of what anybody says, I think it still tastes pretty damn good regardless of where it is brewed. Apparently I am not the only one who thinks so; PBR is très chic these days!

And not just PBR. Narragansett is also rising from the ashes (in southern New England, at least). Originally brewed in Cranston, Rhode Island beginning in 1890, a century later it moved its operations to Fort Wayne, Indiana until the company closed in 1981. The Cranston brewery was demolished in 1991. With new investors in Rhode Island, production resumed in 2005 and just last month it was named the official “Beer of the Clam.” I have found it in a few stores here in Maine and perhaps next summer it will be more widespread. One can only hope.

Beer drinkers know a good thing when they see (and taste) it. I have no complaints with micro-brews; there are a lot of good ones out there. But there is something special about popping a can of PBR on a warm summer day sitting here by the lake. I agree with Ian Anderson. “Oh we won’t give in, / let’s go living in the past.”

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Frying the Cheese

If you have been reading these random notes for any time at all, you will know that I am a confirmed cheesehead. I have been one all of my life. Growing up in the upper Midwest, I guess I have come by this honestly. I will eat any cheese placed in front of me regardless of its appearance, fragrance/odor, or words of praise or caution. Suffice it to say, I have eaten a lot of cheese in my time, but until a few days ago I had never tasted Halloumi. In fact, I never even heard of it before SallyAnn and I came across it at the weekly farmers market here in New Gloucester, Maine.

One of the regular vendors, Townhouse Farm in Whitefield, Maine, offers a selection of locally-produced yogurts - “ewegurt” - made from sheep’s milk. But it was the smallish half rounds of Halloumi that caught my attention. How can it be that there is a cheese out there that I have never heard of or read about before, much less tasted? Of course, I had to buy some. A cheesehead worth his weight can not pass up the opportunity to sample a “new” cheese (actually it has been around for centuries). In response to our inquiry about it, we were told that we could fry or grill it. “Won’t it melt?” I asked picturing a mess of gooey cheese dripping through the grate of our grill. I was assured this would not happen. What a concept!

Being a historian I immediately looked into this new discovery. It turns out that Halloumi really has been around for centuries. A national delicacy of Cyprus (Greek = Χαλούμί Turkish = Hellim), it is traditionally made from unpasteurized sheep’s or goat’s milk (and sometime cow’s milk although it changes its consistency and grilling qualities). Traditional Halloumi is produced without the introduction of bacteria and it is a good source of protein and contains almost twice the amount of calcium of other cheeses while only 25% fat weight. It is normally stored in its brine or the whey extracted during processing (although the locally made Halloumi we purchased was not). It has very little water content and does not require aging, although it will produce a stronger and saltier taste. This all contributes to a much higher melting temperature than other cheeses making it ideal for grilling and frying. It turns to a nice golden brown on the outside with grill markings while the inside has the consistency of fresh curds and squeaks when you chew it. It can be chopped into croutons for salads or served with pita bread. It is also quite good with roasted peppers and olives (especially Greek olives). We fried it and served it over freshly sliced Heirloom tomatoes with a sprig of basil and drizzled with a light dressing.

Halloumi is not particularly cheap - it goes for around $15/pound - but it is a treat, keeps well in the refrigerator, and it is worth the extra you pay for a cheese made from sheep’s or goat’s milk. If it is good (and it looked oh so good), it is worth the gamble. A similar type of cheese is manufactured commercially in this country using cow’s milk and sold as “frying cheese,” yet it has a tendency to melt rather than soften. I would recommend the real thing!