Thursday, May 30, 2019

Cooperstown -- Americana home run -- May 30, 2019 column


When Eppa Rixey visited Cooperstown, N.Y., in retirement in 1959, he wrote a postcard home: “I finally made it!”

It was a joke, but Rixey later achieved the high honor of becoming the first Virginian elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. I didn’t know of him or his poignant story until I visited Cooperstown last week.

If you make it to Cooperstown, a village of nearly 2,000 people and one stoplight on beautiful Lake Otsego, you too likely will learn something about Americana, baseball and yourself.

I expected plaques of the baseball greats at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum but never imagined I’d get teary watching a film there. More on that in a minute.

Let’s pause with Rixey, “an atypical ball player,” as “The Baseball Hall of Fame Almanac” for 2019 says.

Born in Culpeper in 1891, Rixey went straight to the big leagues after graduating from the University of Virginia in 1912 with a degree in, of all things, chemistry.

In the off season, he earned a master’s in chemistry and studied Latin and math at U.Va. Few players went to college then, and, the almanac says, Rixey “fought off the resentment the other players had for his education by engaging in their hazing.”

Playing 21 seasons, he set the record for the most victories by a left-handed pitcher. And when Warren Spahn broke Rixey’s record in 1959, Rixey graciously said he was glad -- because people would remember he had set it earlier.

Elected to the Hall of Fame in 1963, Rixey sadly had a heart attack and died before his induction.

Four other Virginians also made it to the Hall of Fame. All were born before 1916 and played in the Negro Leagues: Ray Dandridge of Richmond, Leon Day of Alexandria, Pete Hill of Culpeper and Jud Wilson of Remington.

Cooperstown, the hometown of 19th century author James Fenimore Cooper, has a large teaching hospital and an excellent art museum. 

But its main draw – for about 300,000 tourists a year – is the Hall of Fame. I wonder how many visitors underestimate, as I did, the emotional pull of the national pastime.

“Generations of the Game” – the museum’s introductory film, new last year – tugs at heartstrings with shots of crazy home runs, impossible catches and ecstatic fans. The fans’ hairdos and clothes speak of the past, but their joy is timeless.

There’s heartbreak too – in the grainy, black-and-white footage of legendary Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig’s farewell on July 4, 1939.

Gehrig, nicknamed the “Iron Horse” for his streak of playing in 2,130 consecutive games, had just been diagnosed at 36 with a little-known fatal disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS. We know it as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Yet he courageously stands before more than 60,000 fans at Yankee Stadium and says, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

Gehrig’s record lasted until Cal Ripken Jr., broke it in 1995. In an interview for the film, a damp-eyed Ripken recalls from memory Gehrig’s farewell, pausing, as Gehrig had, for the echoes caused by the loudspeakers. It’s enough to make you cry.

But there’s no crying in baseball.

The Hall of Fame casts baseball in rosy light but doesn’t ignore its problems, including race.

One exhibit quotes a letter from Richmond in 1883 to the manager of an integrated, minor league team in Toledo, warning him not to play Moses Fleetwood Walker, a black catcher, in Richmond “as we could mention the names of 75 determined men who have sworn to mob Walker if he comes on the ground . . . We only write this to prevent much bloodshed, as you alone can prevent.”

Walker didn’t go to Richmond; he was released from the team before the trip due to injuries.

Soon, Jim Crow would halt integrated baseball until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier on April 15, 1947.

“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives,” Robinson once said.

As the first black player inducted into the Hall of Fame, Robinson opened the door to other deserving black players – including the four Virginians. Dandridge was inducted in 1987, Day in 1995 and Hill and Wilson in 2009.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Monuments to Union generals tell stories we need to hear -- May 23, 2019 column


Last Saturday, 17 people gathered at hectic Thomas Circle, where Massachusetts Avenue, 14th Street and M Street intersect in Northwest Washington.

It wasn’t a protest or a line for concert tickets. We were doing something most people don’t – looking past the bumper-cars traffic to the equestrian statue smack in the middle of the traffic circle.

With journalist and history enthusiast Keith White, who leads walking tours for friends, as our guide, we looked closely at about a dozen monuments to Union generals in the nation’s capital, answering the 21st Century question: “Who ARE those guys?”

Until controversy engulfed Confederate monuments across the South, many people knew only the big names -- Lee, Jackson and Davis. The Confederate statues have made us rethink who and what we should honor and why.

Similarly, in Washington, people flock to the monuments to Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson, while hardly noticing many others. But the uncontentious monuments to victorious Union generals who helped preserve the Union also tell compelling stories.

Two monuments we saw honored Civil War generals from Virginia who made the agonizing decision to stay loyal to the United States -- when doing so meant an irreparable split from friends and family.

(It’s worth noting some Northerners also fought for the South; New Yorker Samuel Cooper and Pennsylvanian John Pemberton became generals in the Confederate Army.)  

Thomas Circle is named for the best Union general you’ve never heard of.
George Henry Thomas was born in 1815 into a slave-holding family on a plantation in Southampton County, Virginia, near the North Carolina line.

A West Point grad, he served with distinction in Florida and Mexico, and his proud hometown presented him with an engraved silver sword for his bravery in the Mexican war.

He became an artillery and cavalry instructor at the military academy under Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee, who was superintendent. Yet when Lee and other Southerners resigned from the U.S. Army to join the Confederacy, Thomas remained.

His sisters, avid secessionists, were so distraught, the story goes, they turned his picture to the wall, denied they had a brother named George, returned his letters unopened, and refused to send him the sword he’d left with them for safe-keeping.

Thomas was a brilliant military strategist. He managed to hold his position and avoid a rout during the 1863 Battle of Chickamauga, earning the valiant nickname, the “Rock of Chickamauga.”

When his statue in Washington was dedicated in 1879, 14 years after the Civil War ended and nine years after Thomas died of a stroke at 53, the federal government shut down for the day and former soldiers flooded the city.

But Thomas never reconciled with his sisters. Near the end of their long lives, they gave his sword to the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond.

Another Virginian who stayed loyal to the Union army was Major General Winfield Scott, born in Dinwiddie County in 1786.

A hero of the Mexican War, Scott was known as “Old Fuss and Feathers” for his love of discipline and pomp.

By 1861, when the Civil War started, Scott was the army’s top general, but he was in poor health and couldn’t even mount his horse. He recommended President Lincoln name his fellow Virginian Lee to lead the Army.

When Lee refused, Scott is said to have told him: “Lee, you have made the greatest mistake of your life, but I feared it would be so.”

Scott resigned, wrote a two-volume autobiography and died in 1866.

The sculptor of Scott’s monument put him on a small mare, his favorite mount. But Scott’s family insisted a great military man should be shown on a stallion. The sculptor made an adjustment. Today, most people don’t notice, but in 1874, the statue was widely ridiculed.

The Scott monument is in busy Scott Circle, where Massachusetts and Rhode Island avenues and 16th Street NW meet. 

On Memorial Day, we honor those who gave their lives in military service.

We owe respect and a deep debt of gratitude to all who serve and sacrifice, and especially to Virginians Thomas and Scott who made the wrenching decision to fight to preserve the United States.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Who pays for the trade war? We do. -- May 16, 2019 column


How or when President Donald Trump’s trade war will end is anyone’s guess. There’s no long-term plan or end game in sight.

But two things are clear: You’ll pay more and Trump will claim he won.

Despite what you’ve heard, China is not paying for the tariffs any more than Mexico is paying for the border wall.  

“We find that the U.S. tariffs were almost completely passed through into U.S. domestic prices, so that the entire incidence of the tariffs fell on domestic consumers and importers,” three economists wrote in a report on the impact last year of Trump’s tariffs. They are Mary Amiti at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Stephen Redding at Princeton and David Weinstein at Columbia.

Trump imposed tariffs on nearly $283 billion in imports last year – about 12 percent of total imports – and foreign countries retaliated with tariffs of their own on American goods amounting to $121 billion. 

By the end of the year, tariffs reduced U.S. income by $1.4 billion per month, the economists calculated.

Trump says consumers can buy American to avoid tariffs, but that’s easier said than done in our global economy. 

Besides, “We also find that U.S. producers responded to reduced import competition by raising their prices,” the report said.

A tariff is basically a tax at the border that’s paid by the importer, usually an American firm. Businesses may try to absorb the costs for a while, but eventually they pass them on to the consumer.

Even Trump’s top economics adviser, Larry Kudlow, conceded on “Fox News Sunday” that American consumers and businesses are paying the tariffs.

Trump says the world has been ripping off America too long. He insists tariffs bring back industries, like steel, and create jobs -- but the cost is astounding.

The steel tariffs Trump imposed last year created about 8,700 jobs in the U.S steel industry, according to calculations by the Peterson Institute for International Economics. But the price tag for American consumers and businesses for each job created or saved was more than $900,000.

“Wow!” the report said.

Trump has told allies and advisers the trade war is very popular with his base and will help him win re-election, The Washington Post reported.

“You want to know something? We always win,” Trump said on the White House lawn this week.

Well, let’s hope so. The last time the United States fell hard for tariffs was the 1930s, when tariffs probably worsened the Depression.

But Trump loves tariffs. After trade talks with China fell apart, he hiked tariffs from 10 percent to 25 percent on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods last Friday. China announced retaliatory tariffs of $60 billion on U.S. goods.

Trump wants to impose tariffs on another $300 billion of Chinese products, and he’s eyeing tariffs on autos from Europe and Japan.

Everyone agrees China should stop its aggressively unfair business practices -- like making American companies share technology and trade secrets. The question is whether tariffs are the right tool.

While the economy remains strong, the trade war is hurting the nation’s farmers who rely on overseas markets for soybeans. That’s opened a rift between the president and some Republicans in Congress.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican and a lifelong farmer, complained he can’t through to Trump on the need to lift tariffs.

Trump gave farmers a $12 billion bailout last year and is planning another for $15 billion.

“Our great Patriot Farmers will be one of the biggest beneficiaries of what is happening now,” he tweeted.

But Sen. Patrick Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, isn’t buying.

“Think about what we’re doing. We’re inviting retaliation that denies our farmers, the most productive farmers on the planet, the opportunity to sell their products overseas and then we say, `Don’t worry, we’ll have taxpayers send you some checks and make it OK,’” Toomey said.  

Consumers can expect to see higher prices of Chinese goods by mid-June, experts say. Items affected include auto parts, bicycles, dog leashes, fish and seafood, furniture and luggage.  

So grab your wallet. You’re likely to suffer collateral damage in the trade war.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Can anyone save what's left of privacy? -- May 9, 2019 column


First came the email saying my credit card may have been compromised “at an undisclosed merchant,” and the bank was sending a replacement card.

Wait, what happened? And what’s an undisclosed merchant, anyway? When I called to find out, the customer representative said the bank doesn’t share that information.

The bank says it gets information from various outside sources – such as Visa, MasterCard and American Express and law enforcement agencies – and details about a specific breach are not disclosed, even to the bank.

That’s good, I guess, but it leaves customers in the dark.

My new card arrived promptly, and I started updating accounts where my credit card is on file for payments. That’s a downside of convenience and reward points.

We’ve all been there. No matter how hard we try to preserve a semblance of control over our personal data, we constantly lag enterprising crooks.

What we don’t willingly share on social media, companies “harvest” for their own business purposes. That word, harvest, grates on me, but, like it or not, our personal information is a commodity.

In our hyper-connected age, privacy is melting faster than glaciers on our warming planet.

Now, Congress -- after years of railing about the loss of privacy -- is holding hearings on the issue and fussing at corporate leaders. But lawmakers are divided on how to write a federal privacy law to replace our confusing patchwork of state and federal laws.  

The Federal Trade Commission is cracking down somewhat on Facebook and other mega companies that shirk their responsibilities.

Even social media and tech giants claim they’re on our side and promise – again – to do more to protect our privacy.

“The future is private,” Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg declared April 30, insisting he was serious.  

Facebook is negotiating with the Federal Trade Commission a fine up to $5 billion  in a settlement for failing to abide by a 2011 consent decree to protect users’ privacy.

Facebook shared the personal information of about 87 million users -- without their knowledge or consent – with Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm that has since gone out of business. 

The fine, expected any day, would be the largest in American history, and may require the company to take such steps as appointing a top level privacy official and a privacy oversight committee.

It’s just a slap on the wrist, critics say.

Two senators, Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Republican Josh Hawley of Missouri, say the enormous fine is a “bargain for Facebook.” They suggest the FTC hold Zuckerberg and other corporate leaders personally responsible.

Facebook is redesigning and updating its services to encourage private messages, communication within groups and Story. Stories disappear 24 hours after they’re posted.

Other companies now use privacy as a selling point, following Apple’s lead.

“We believe privacy is a fundamental human right,” Apple’s website says.

But it doesn’t come cheap. Apple’s budget iPhone XR starts at $749.

Google chief executive Sundar Pichai wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times Tuesday: “Privacy cannot be a luxury good offered only to people who can afford to buy premium products and services.”

Google unveiled a $399 smartphone and promised tools to help customers control their data, such as expanding incognito mode, which allows users to search without being identified, to maps and other apps. 

Our smart products already record and send back our conversations and activities – often to train artificial intelligence, but still. Amazon workers and contractors reportedly listen to consumers’ conversations with Alexa. That’s creepy.

And, Amazon’s Key will deliver your online purchases inside your home, car or garage.

All Prime members need do is allow access to their property. A promotional video shows happy people opening their car trunk, garage and front door and finding packages safe and sound. What could go wrong?

In this fast-changing world, we can’t expect the government to save our privacy. And we can’t trust the big tech companies to have our privacy at heart.

We each must decide how much we want smart machines to do for us and how much privacy we’re willing to give up for the convenience.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Divide on gun laws sets stage for 2020 -- column of May 2, 2019


Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris threw down the gauntlet on gun control.

“Upon being elected, I will give the United States Congress 100 days to get their act together and have the courage to pass reasonable gun safety laws, and if they fail to do it, then I will take executive action,” the senator from California declared April 22 at a CNN town hall in New Hampshire.

Taking a strong stand on gun control used to be politically risky. Today, not so much.

Not after the Virginia Tech massacre of 32 students and professors in 2007, the slaughter of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, the mass murder of 17 students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last year – and countless other shootings, including at a synagogue in California Saturday and a university in North Carolina Tuesday.

Democratic leaders agree on the need for universal background checks for gun purchases, reinstatement of the ban on sales of military-style assault weapons and red flag laws meant to keep guns out of the hands of those likely to hurt themselves or others.

In February, House Democrats passed two gun safety bills with a smattering of Republican support. If lightning should strike and the bills make it through the Republican-controlled Senate, though, President Donald Trump will veto them.

And that divide sets the stage for the 2020 campaign.

Trump told the National Rifle Association convention April 26 the constitutional right to bear arms is “under assault – but not when we’re here. Not even close.”

He urged NRA members to “get out there and vote” next year. “It seems like it’s a long ways away. It’s not,” he said. 

The NRA poured tens of millions of dollars into electing Trump, but its clout appears to be fading amidst internal strife and investigations into its tax exempt status.

Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, hardly a “gun grabber,” reportedly is drafting a red flag bill to help police confiscate guns temporarily from people who are likely to hurt themselves or others.

“I think most Americans believe that multiple murderers shouldn’t have gun rights. Most Americans support background checks,” he told The State newspaper in South Carolina. “The Second Amendment’s important to me, but it’s not a suicide pact.”

Polls show the major issues for 2020 are likely to be health care, the economy and immigration. Gun laws don’t make the cut, although few polls even ask the question.

But Quinnipiac University does ask, and its polls since 2014 consistently have found over 90 percent support for background checks for all gun buyers. Most recently, in January, 95 percent of Democrats, 94 percent of independents and 89 percent of Republicans said they favored background checks.

Gun rights groups say background checks are ineffective and infringe on constitutional rights. When several states passed more stringent firearm laws after the shootings in Parkland, Florida, dozens of rural counties declared themselves Second Amendment “sanctuaries,” refusing to enforce the new laws.

How did we get here? For a clear-eyed account, I suggest reading “After Virginia Tech” by award-winning journalist Thomas P. Kapsidelis, a friend and former Richmond Times-Dispatch colleague.

Kapsidelis tells victims’ stories and what happened next to survivors, families, first responders and others -- and where the political system failed them.

“One Tech parent told me that all sides could have come together to make progress. That hasn’t happened,” he writes.

It’s a sobering, unsentimental assessment, but Kapsidelis cautions against losing hope.

He quotes an editorial by Gerald Fischman, who was murdered, along with four colleagues, last summer when a gunman with a grudge burst into the newsroom at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis. After the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando where 58 were killed in July 2016, Fischman wrote: 

“Of all the words this week, hopelessness may be the most dangerous. We must believe there is a solution, a way to prevent another mass shooting.”

No one wants more mass shootings. The 2020 campaigns and election offer us the chance to show we care enough to try to stop them.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.