Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays!

May the joy and peace of Christmas be with you during the holidays... The love of my life in a vintage card from the incredible artist Dennis Mukai.

May the joy and peace of Christmas be with you during the holidays… The love of my life Renee LaSalle in a vintage card from the incredible artist Dennis Mukai.

Joe DiMaggio Born 101 Years Ago Today

 

Joe DiMaggio, whose 56 consecutive game hitting record will never be broken, was on this day — November 25, 1914 — 101 years ago. Happy Birthday, Joltin’ Joe!

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Of Heroes and Coaches, Fathers and Sons

WHEN I WAS A STARRY-EYED high school sophomore dreaming that I could be the next Johnny Unitas, I met a real life All American quarterback whose story seemed straight out of an inspiring Hollywood film, long before “Friday Night Lights.”

His name was Robert Duty, and he could have been the older brother of anyone on our team. He was in his early 20s, and he was a legend at our high school in Central Texas, having quarterbacked the school’s only team to ever win a district championship in a state where football is king.

Robert Duty in a sports media photo at North Texas State University, 1960.

Robert Duty in a sports media photo at North Texas State University, 1960.

He had gone on to play college football at North Texas State University, where he was good enough to be signed as a free agent by the San Diego Chargers of the upstart American Football League, which would eventually merge with the National Football League – and that’s where he had been that summer, toiling through the Chargers’ pre-season camp trying to make the team as a rookie.

So imagine our surprise when our high school’s two-a-day football workouts began and we discovered the much heralded high school hero back home where he had become his alma mater’s quarterback coach.

The story of how Coach Duty had wound up back home quickly got out, though not from his mouth. While in the Chargers’ rookie training camp, where he had been impressing the San Diego coaching staff, he got a long-distance call from home with bad news: His father had become seriously ill and might even die.

That day Duty left the Chargers’ training camp with the door open for him to return. He never did.

“Robert wanted to be home to help take care of his father,” our former head coach, Ira Conner, later told me. “Robert loved his father like no son I ever knew. His dad was the center of his universe. He credited him for becoming the athlete he became, and he was going to be at his father’s bedside now that he needed his son.”

The story brought a lump to my throat, as I’m sure it did to other athletes who heard it.

I must confess that I was hardly Coach Duty’s prize pupil.

“For a quarterback,” he once said to me, “you sure ask all the wrong questions.”

That was true. In fact, I never played quarterback for his teams, nor even graduated from that high school.

But it didn’t stop me from asking questions, questions that I’m sure Coach Duty didn’t want to consider.

Was he ever going back to the Chargers? How could he walk away from pursuing his childhood dream? Hadn’t he wanted to become an NFL quarterback?

“Son,” he said to me one day, after I had pestered him once more. “There are bigger dreams than becoming the next Johnny Unitas.”

That shut me up, but only for a while.

DutySnap

Quarterback Robert Duty calling signals in North Texas State University’s 1960 homecoming game against Hardin-Simmons.

A few years later, while I was a young sportswriter at my hometown daily, I was telling the story about Coach Duty giving up his shot at becoming an NFL quarterback to be with his ill father to my role model among sportswriters, Jim Montgomery, a columnist at the paper.

“You know, there’s something there,” said Jim. “Robert Duty had incredible talent. Who knows what he might have been had the stars lined up differently.”

Montgomery then told me that he had once interviewed Abner Haynes, an outstanding running back with the Chargers and other NFL teams in the 1960s who had been teammates with Duty at North Texas State.

“Abner Haynes said that Robert Duty was the best quarterback he had ever played with, bar none,” Jim said.

By this time Duty was head coach of his alma mater, University High School in Waco, Texas. One day I cornered him again, there to continue asking all the wrong questions, I’m sure he thought. His father had died two years after he left the Chargers’ rookie camp, and life had moved on.

Did he have any second thoughts? Being that talented and that close to achieving his childhood dream – some people might have looked on that as a tragedy.

We talked that afternoon, about childhood dreams, about fathers and sons, about heroes and rebels. We each had tears in our eyes. When he gave me a parting hug, it was as if I had hugged Johnny Unitas.

“Son, the only tragedy of my decision,” he finally said, “would have been if I hadn’t come home.”

A few years ago, when my own father died, I got a condolence letter I didn’t expect. It was from Coach Duty and said simply: “Nothing’s greater than a father.”

I had heard the same thing from my own childhood hero, Mickey Mantle, as I have from many other men whose lives would not have been the same without their fathers.

It’s so true.

Sadly, last week I got the news that Coach Duty, at the age of 76, had died there in Central Texas, not all that far from the high school and the football field where he became a legend.

And, in his own way, every bit as big as Johnny Unitas.

Could Molly Knight Be Vin Scully’s Successor?

Author Molly Knight's new best-seller on the Los Angeles Dodgers is as

Author Molly Knight’s new best-seller on the Los Angeles Dodgers is as refreshing and entertaining as listening to the personal, informative voice of Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully.

FOUR ALMOST FOUR DECADES, MY SUMMERS have been passed listening to Vin Scully religiously, bemoaning the cutback in his announcing schedule and, I suppose, unconsciously preparing myself for that day when Vinny calls it a career.

I am also one of those baseball fans who wears headphones and listens to Scully call a game on the radio even when I’m at Dodger Stadium.

Especially today, Vinny makes a bearable experience out of what otherwise at times resembles a virtual drive in a convertible through the hood or the barrio bombarded by a cacophony of butchered languages peppered with hip-hop that has sullied the traditional pastoral sense of the game.

The fictional literary character Terence Mann perhaps stated it more succinctly in the Hollywood film Field of Dreams when he says to protagonist Ray Kinsella: “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and it could be again.”

That’s what Vin Scully has also meant for the game. He’s been a link to baseball of its glory years, and he’s done that through those marvelous stories he often tells, almost as an afterthought, throughout a broadcast — like his tales about Chad Billingsley, saying that he pitched “with the Sword of Damocles over his head,” using Greek legend to depict the former Dodger so often pitching with danger looming nearby.

I can’t imagine any pretender to Scully’s throne having his wit and talent, much less his ability to weave classical literature into a broadcast.

That is not until I read former ESPN writer Molly Knight’s new best-seller The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse. 

Knight’s book details how the new Dodger ownership, Guggenheim Partners, since 2013 has overtaken the New York Yankees in their annual payrolls though reaping nothing more than near-misses in the playoffs, while having more success in keeping Cuban boy wonder Yasiel Puig alive amid death threats from a smuggling underworld that wanted its share of the slugger’s newfound wealth.

The book fittingly portrays the new Dodger owners as having more dollars than sense, which allowed them to triple the team payroll while under the widely detested Frank McCourt, who sold the team in 2012, much to the delight of fans who thought no one could be worse and thus were willing to give the Guggenheim Partners a long honeymoon while waiting for a World Series championship.

But these Dodgers, unfortunately, have not been the Boys of Summer, nor even the romantic underdog Oakland A’s of Moneyball.

At one point, concerned about the disappointing production of an injury recovering Matt Kemp — the slugging outfielder traded to the San Diego Padres before this season — the befuddled Dodgers brass, according to Knight, even “dispatched a club executive to speak with Kemp’s mother, who attended almost every home game, about what the team might do to help her son. Was he having girl problems?”

If that makes the Dodgers appear a bit like the old bums of Brooklyn, imagine that scene playing out on the big screen should this book become a Hollywood movie, a baseball comedy, for sure.

Then the book also covers a particular Dodgers losing streak that begs comparison with how Oakland general manage Billy Beane handled similar woes in Moneyball. Beane, a genius compared to his counter-part in Los Angeles, made trades, even discarding an All-Star, and insisted that the reluctant A’s manager play the productive journeymen ballplayers that he had signed.

What did the Guggenheim Partners Dodgers do?

“Unsure of what else to do,” Knight writes, “an anxious (GM Ned) Colletti emailed leadership surveys to” half a dozen handpicked players.

These are small nuggets in the overall book, which covers two years of the current Dodgers, but they show Knight’s appreciation of irony and how those kinds of stories are what Scully has used for years to help mold our understanding of baseball and those who play it.

Knight is also not afraid to be honest. Her book offers fresh insight into Dodger pitcher Zack Greinke, who is having a career season in 2016 and whose social anxiety issues have been chronicled in the past.

But Knight may have had a better understanding of Greinke because of her own anxiety disorder of the past of which she has talked candidly in interviews, including a panic attack as she was finishing the book – and of how she went back on the medication Zoloft, which she reveals that Greinke also takes.

When is the last time a Dodger insider was this open about the team, the front office or especially themselves?

I can only think of Vin Scully.

And now Molly Knight, cut from the same cloth as the legend.

R.I.P. Fred Slatten, The King of Santa Monica Boulevard

THEY USED TO CALL FRED SLATTEN the King of Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood in the years just after the 1960s had begun transforming pop culture in America.

Slatten wasn’t a musician or an actor. He didn’t direct movies or represent stars. He did own a gorgeous bronze and gold Rolls Royce that became synonymous with him in the years that he was a fixture in an unincorporated West Hollywood trapped at the time between the glitz of Tinseltown and the exclusivity of Beverly Hills.

Fred Slatten in the 1970s

Celebrity shoe designer Fred Slatten in the 1970s

A tall, lanky former college basketball player at Kansas State, Fred Slatten became famous and rich for designing a product that he himself would never need – platform shoes, which became the rage for stars, celebrities and everyone trying to dress like them at a time when Hollywood lived on glam rock at its shaggiest.

One of the most prominent American shoes designers of his time, Slatten also designed boots – and those sexy, above-the-knee boots Nancy Sinatra sang about in her 1966 hit “These Boots Are Made for Walking” were Fred Slatten creations.

“Nancy Sinatra,” Slatten later recalled in one interview, “was our biggest customer.”

Friendship aside, though, Nancy couldn’t talk Slatten into selling her his personalized “FS 1” license plates from his Rolls Royce that she desperately wanted as a gift for her father Frank.

Cher, Diana Ross, Prince, Marvin Gaye, Barbara Streisand, Goldie Hawn, Liza Minnelli. Pick a name from that era, and they too likely shopped at Fred Slatten Shoes, a boutique he kept lit 24 hours a day with the display windows showing off spinning turntables of his platform designs.

“Before we knew it,” he once said, “we had a captive audience.”

Originally from Kansas City, MO, Slatten had been an executive at Bullock’s and later a wholesaler before deciding to design women’s shoes full-time.

His store on Santa Monica Boulevard was among a collage of unique boutiques, coffee shops, restaurants and hip businesses around the corner from Larabee Sound Studios in the years before West Hollywood became a city.

Stars and celebrities poured into Slatten’s boutique, but in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Slatten recalled that actress Lana Turner had been “the only customer we kept the store open late for.”

“Then there was this little pudgy guy who turned out to be Elton John,” he said. “He bought every shoe we ever made.”

Slatten also had a special armoire in his store that was filled with nothing but platform shoes and boots made especially for singer Stevie Nicks.

“When Stevie needed a new pair, she would call Fred, and he’d have them sent overnight to her no matter where she was in the world,” recalled Becky Cash, who was like an adopted daughter to Slatten and the longtime manager of his store.

The boutique became a magnet for men shopping for girlfriends, as well as women, because Slatten took pride in hiring the most beautiful sales assistants he could find.

Fred Slatten's sales team: Becky Cash, Shannon, Nicole Lalli

Fred Slatten’s sales team: Becky Cash, Shannon, Nicole Lalli

“Gene Simmons from KISS came in a lot,” Slatten told one interviewer, “but I think he just liked our girls.

“Every centerfold for 15 years wore our shoes. Barbi Benton wanted a pair that lit up, so we powered them by batteries.”

At one point, Slatten’s shoes showed city skylines or the faces of David Bowie or Marilyn Monroe, while other platform shoes had real goldfish in their wedges and live birds in their heels.

But as West Hollywood transformed, with cityhood in the mid-1980s and a revamped image on the boulevard, the demand for Slatten’s specialized shoes changed, as well. He closed his boutique, continued designing shoes for others and eventually retired.

He also didn’t think much about today’s platform renaissance, saying they were “kind of gross looking.”

“Our shoes,” he said of his designs, “flattered the foot.”

Most recently Slatten had been working on his memoir about his time and role in Hollywood and his place and its pop culture.

His time, like everyone’s, had come and gone, he used to say.

On July 1, he died in his sleep at his home. He was 92.

Last week friends gathered at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery along Slatten’s beloved Santa Monica Boulevard where his ashes were scattered among the graves of Johnny Ramone, Cecil B. DeMille, Jayne Mansfield, Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks and hundreds more of Hollywood’s greatest stars.

The King of Santa Monica Boulevard had come to his final resting place.

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