June 14, 2017

“Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”

Baseball Hall of Famer Satchel Paige (1906-1982) is considered one of the greatest pitchers in history — despite the fact that he only played for teams in the major leagues for about five years. 

Paige actually had a very long career in baseball that started in 1926.

But from the mid-1920s to the late 1940s he was limited to playing for teams in “The Negro League,” due to the strict racial segregation that continued to be imposed in America during the first half of the 20th century.

In 1947, Paige’s former Negro League teammate Jackie Robinson finally broke baseball’s color barrier.

The following year, at age 42, Paige was recruited as a pitcher by the Cleveland Indians.

That simultaneously made him both the first Negro pitcher in the American League and the oldest major league “rookie” ever.

In 1951, Paige moved to Missouri to play for the St. Louis Browns. (I once owned a Topps baseball card showing him in his Browns uniform, with his name misspelled as “Satchell.” Looking at the prices that card fetches now on eBay, I wish I still had it.)

In 1953, a magazine story about Paige included what became a famous quote that’s included in many books about quotations and baseball:

      “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” [Sometimes given as “…may be gaining...”]

This the best known of the six rules attributed to Paige in that article, which was written by sports journalist Richard Donovan and published in the June 13, 1953 issue of Collier’s.

The six rules, (variously known as Satchel Paige’s “Six Rules for a Long Life” and “Rules for Staying Young”) were featured in a sidebar of the article and recorded as follows:

      “1. Avoid fried meats, which angry up the blood.
       2. If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts.
       3. Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move.
       4. Go very light on the vices, such as carrying on in society. The social rumble ain’t restful.
       5. Avoid running at all times.
       6. Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you.”

The Collier’s article made Paige’s rules famous.

Paige enhanced awareness of them by reciting the rules to fans and reporters throughout the rest of his life. He even had them printed on the back of his business cards.

However, over the years, questions arose about whether Satchel’s rules had actually been created by him or by Richard Donovan.

The truth seems to be somewhere in between.

In Paige’s 1962 memoir, Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever, he said he did have a system of personal rules that helped him be one of the best — and eventually oldest — pitchers in baseball.

“Some sports guy on the East Coast heard me talking about them once and then he went and turned them into a bunch of rules for me to stay young,” Paige recalled.

Regarding the most-quoted rule about not looking back, Paige said: “That last one that fellow wrote was my real rule. When you look back, you know how long you’ve been going and that just might stop you from going any farther...So I didn’t.”

In the excellent biography SATCHEL: The Life and Times of an American Legend, author Larry Tye concludes that the rules were based on things Paige said to Donovan during hours of interviews, but the exact wording was probably Donovan’s.

Paige retired from major league baseball not long after Collier’s published his “six rules” in 1953. But he remained a popular celebrity until his death from a heart attack in 1982.

His heart problem may have had something to do with the fact that — by his own admission — Satchel regularly violated Rule #1.

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Further reading and viewing about Satchel Paige and the Negro Leagues

June 01, 2017

“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.”

I have measured out my life with coffeespoons WM2 
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” by the American-born British poet T.S. Eliot (Thomas Stearns Eliot), is one of the most famous poems of the 20th Century.

It was first published in the June 1915 issue of Poetry magazine, an influential Chicago-based journal read by literary luminaries and poetry buffs in both America and Europe.

Although critical reception of the poem was mixed, it launched Eliot’s career as a poet and gave him initial visibility that grew to worldwide fame with publication of his other early masterpieces of modernist verse: “Gerontion” (1920), “The Waste Land” (1922) and “The Hollow Men” (1925).

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was included in Eliot’s first book of collected verse, Prufrock and Other Observations (1917).

It remains one of his best-known poems and contains several passages found in many books of quotations.

One of those oft-quoted passages comes from the beginning of the poem:

       “Let us go then, you and I,
       When the evening is spread out against the sky
       Like a patient etherized upon a table.”

In literal terms, an evening spread out like an anaesthetized patient makes no sense.

But, like much of the verse Eliot wrote, it evokes an image that works memorably as poetry.

As the poem proceeds, it becomes apparent that the character speaking is an old man who seems disillusioned, lonely, bored and unhappy.

“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” he says in one of the poem’s most famous lines. (Sometimes misquoted as “I have measured out my life in coffee spoons.”)

Other passages express the old man’s haunting feeling that life and love have passed him by and that he may have let them pass, by settling into a humdrum existence.

In another oft-quoted part of the poem he says:

       “I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
       I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
       Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?

The poem ends, gloomily, with these final famous lines:

       “We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
       By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
       Till human voices wake us, and we drown.”

Eliot’s poetic trip inside an old man’s mind in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was not based on his personal experience.

He was only 22 years old when he began composing the poem in 1920 and only 26 when it was first published.

I suspect that, in part, the poem reflects the sense of dread many young people feel when they realize they might reach old age without having pursued their dreams, without ever having found true love, without escaping the sometimes soul-crushing limitations imposed by society and the need to make a living.

As Eliot reached middle age and beyond, his work became less gloomy.

His even wrote comedic plays and a book of whimsical poems about cats titled Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (the basis for the hit Broadway musical Cats).

Eliot’s last well-known poem, published in 1959, suggests that, after an unhappy first marriage, he found happiness with his second wife, Esmé Valerie Fletcher.

It’s a romantic, almost sappy bit of verse titled “A Dedication to My Wife” that has become a popular wedding poem.

Apparently, Esmé helped Eliot escape the lonely fate of his character J. Alfred Prufrock.

When they wed in 1957, she was 32. He was 68.

To which I say: good for you, old man.

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Related reading and listening

May 24, 2017

“They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!”

On May 24, 1995, five days after its official premiere in Los Angeles, Braveheart was released to theaters nationwide in the USA.

The movie stars Mel Gibson as the 13th century Scottish rebel leader William Wallace. He also directed it.

It was a major critical and box office success. And, it also generated a famous, oft-recycled and parodied movie quote.

It’s a line Gibson shouts to his men, just before they fight the much larger English army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge:

       “They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!”

That line is part of the answer Gibson gives after one nervous Scottish soldier suggests out loud that it might be better to retreat and live to fight another day.

Gibson responds by saying:

      “Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you’ll live — at least a while. And, dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!?! Alba gu bràth!”

If you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t seen Braveheart, you can view a clip of this scene online.

In Scottish Gaelic, “Alba gu bràth” (sometimes spelled Alba gu bra, Alba go bragh or Alba go breá) means “Scotland forever!”

The literal meaning of gu bràth in Gaelic is “until Judgment,” meaning the final Judgment day foretold in the Bible. The Irish, who also fought for their freedom against the English, have a similar term: “Erin go bragh” (“Ireland Forever”).

The inspiring speech Mel gives in the film is fictional, but Braveheart is based on true historic events.

William Wallace was a key leader of the Scottish rebellion against the English in the 13th century, during what’s called the First War of Scottish Independence.

At the bloody Battle of Stirling Bridge, fought on September 11, 1297, Wallace succeeded in getting his outnumbered followers to defeat the much larger English army they faced.

That battle, and the legends that arose about Wallace, encouraged the Scots to continue and ultimately achieve the goal of Scottish independence.

Unfortunately, Wallace didn’t live to see it. He was caught, tortured, disemboweled and beheaded before that came to pass, as is graphically depicted in Braveheart.

History buffs have noted that some things in Braveheart stray more than a wee bit from the facts.

For example, the Lowland Scots that Wallace led didn’t wear kilts, like they do in the movie.

And, the bridge that played a major role in the Battle of Stirling Bridge — by creating a bottleneck that prevented English troops from overwhelming the Scots — was nowhere to be seen in the movie.

But somehow, whenever I rewatch Mel’s rousing speech in Braveheart, those seem like nitpicks. Alba gu bràth!

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Related reading and viewing… 

May 18, 2017

“Never play cards with a man called Doc” — and other advice from Nelson Algren…

Nelson Algren (1909-1981)
copyright record for the novel A Walk on the Wild Side by Nelson Algren says it was copyrighted on May 18, 1956.

Traditionally, the copyright date is also a book’s initial publication date.

Algren’s novel might have been released sooner if not for a dispute he had with his publishing company, Doubleday.

Doubleday had published Algren’s breakthrough book of short stories, The Neon Wilderness, in 1947.

In 1949 it published his blockbuster novel The Man with the Golden Arm, which won the National Book Award in 1950 and was later made into a hit film starring Frank Sinatra.

The next novel Algren wrote was A Walk on the Wild Side.

After reviewing its story about a drifter from Texas who, among other things, rapes a woman, works in a condom factory and then in a whorehouse in New Orleans, the editorial powers that be at Doubleday decided it was a bit too risqué.

As noted by book news journalist Frederick Babcock in his column in the Chicago Tribune on February 26, 1956, they told Algren to tone it down.

Algren made a few minor token changes. Doubleday pushed for more. Algren took a walk, so to speak, and gave the novel to Farrar, Straus & Cudahy to publish. 

Newsclip about Nelson Algren, 1956Given the eventual lasting fame of the book and its title, you could say the editors at Doubleday make a big mistake. But in 1956 the novel was panned by critics and initial sales were low. Algren was so devastated he tried to commit suicide.

He survived. He continued to write and he taught writing at several universities. But he didn’t publish another book until 1962.

He didn’t write another novel until 1974. Titled The Devil’s Stocking, it wasn’t published until 1983 — two years after Algren died from a heart attack.

A Walk on the Wild Side has lived on as a book that continues to be reprinted and is now more favorably viewed by critics.

In 1962, it was adapted into a film with a star-studded cast, including Laurence Harvey, Capucine, Jane Fonda, Anne Baxter and Barbara Stanwyck.

The title song for the film, scored by Elmer Bernstein with lyrics by Mack David, was nominated for an Academy Award and is on the American Film Institute’s list of greatest film music.

In 1972, Lou Reed released his catchy song “A Walk on the Wild Side” (produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson).

By that time those words were already a common idiomatic expression meaning to do things that are risky or morally questionable.

Reed’s song made the phrase even more famous and familiar to new generations.

Algren’s novel A Walk on the Wild Side also includes his best known quote. It’s some memorable advice about certain things you should never do that shows up in many books of famous quotations:

       “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.”

These rules are imparted to the novel’s central character, Dove Linkhorn, by a career criminal named “Cross-Country” Kline, while the two are spending time in jail together.

A Walk on the Wild Side, Nelson Algren Ace edition 1960Kline also shares other life lessons he’d learned with Dove.

Here’s a longer excerpt from A Walk on the Wild Side in which he recites them:

      “But blow wise to this, buddy, blow wise to this: Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own. Never let nobody talk you into shaking another man’s jolt. And never you cop another man’s plea. I’ve tried ‘em all and I know. They don’t work.
       “Life is hard by the yard, son. But you don’t have to do it by the yard. By the inch it’s a cinch. And money can’t buy everything. For example: poverty.”

Not long after A Walk on the Wild Side was published, the first three rules mentioned by Cross-Country Kline in that excerpt began to be cited as a famous quote by Algren.

With slight wording changes, Algren often cited them himself in speaking engagements and interviews. He also used them in an essay titled “What Every Young man Should Know.”

Quote mavens like Ralph Keyes and Barry Popik have pointed out that Algren probably didn’t coin the three famous rules himself.

They have both noted that an actor friend of Algren named Dave Peltz claimed to have created the rules. He said he wrote them down in a letter he sent to Algren.

Algren told biographer H. E. F. Donohue he got them from “a nice old Negro lady.”

In the foreword to the 1964 book Conversations with Nelson Algren, Donohue wrote:

“He [Algren] shunts aside all rules regulations and dicta except for three laws he says a nice old Negro lady once taught him: Never play cards with any man named ‘Doc’. Never eat at any place called ‘Mom’s’. And never ever, no matter what else you do in your whole life, never sleep with anyone whose troubles are worse than your own.”

Several years ago, in a post on his “Black Cracker” blog, writer and musician Josh Alan Friedman recorded an additional rule of life Algren once mentioned to him.

Josh is the son of the novelist and playwright Bruce Jay Friedman and brother of cartoonist Drew Friedman. (He’s also one of my co-editors on an anthology of vintage men’s adventure stories, titled Weasels Ripped My Flesh!)

In July of 1964, Nelson Algren spent a week with the Friedman family at their rented summer house on Fire Island.

Josh recalled:

“Algren went apeshit over our elderly nanny, Mrs. Sullivan (the ‘Mrs. O’Leary’ character in my book, Black Cracker). She would break into a put-on Irish brogue to his delight. For years afterward, whenever Algren called my father and Mrs. Sullivan answered the phone, he’d chat with Mrs. Sullivan for an hour...Another other thing I recall from that week with Nelson in the house: He advised us that the pot handles be turned inward on the stove, rather than sticking out where they could be knocked over.”

So, there’s one more sensible Nelson Algren rule of life to remember — while you avoid playing cards with anyone named Doc, eating at a place called Mom’s and sleeping with anyone whose troubles are worse than your own. Never turn the pot handles outward on the stove.

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Related reading…

May 12, 2017

“It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

Most people prefer not to think a lot about death.

But that subject has always loomed large in the mind and works of comedian, writer, actor and director Woody Allen, even when he was a young man.

One of Allen’s quips about death is a famous quote that’s cited in hundreds of books:

   “It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

This line comes from an imaginary one-act play Allen wrote in his late thirties, titled Death.

It was one of two short plays included with a collection of his short stories in the book Without Feathers, which was published on May 12, 1975.

Death is said to be Allen’s humorous homage to Eugene Ionesco’s 1959 “Theatre of the Absurd” play The Killer.

Years later, he used Death as the basis for his 1992 film Shadows and Fog.

The title of Allen’s book Without Feathers is a satiric twist on words written by Emily Dickinson.

It’s a take-off on the first line of Dickinson’s poem “Hope,” published posthumously in 1891, five years after her death:

“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune – without the words,
And never stops at all.”

By titling his book Without Feathers, Allen was making a sardonic literary joke.

It encapsulated the contrast between his own fatalistic, dark-humored view of life and the more uplifting thoughts expressed by Dickinson in “Hope.”

Allen’s quote about death from Without Feathers has been immortalized by it’s inclusion in many books of famous quotations, as have a number of lines from his movies and his early stand-up comedy routines.

I don’t know if Woody Allen will end up being as popular after his death for as long as Emily Dickinson has been since hers in 1886.

But I suspect Woody’s reaction to that possibility might be another famous line he used back in the days when he did stand-up:

“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.”

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Related reading: books by and about Woody Allen…

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