Black Dan, the Rubber Man

Daniel Webster is best remembered as one of the great political orators of the 19th century. His Senate debate with South Carolina’s Roberty Y. Hayne is still studied today. He served as secretary of State and negotiated the Webster-Ashburton Treaty that secured the U.S.-Canada border, at least in the eastern half of the continent (it would be left to James K. Polk to settle Oregon).

Webster, who died on Oct. 24, 1852, was also one of the greatest lawyers of his era. He argued many cases before the Supreme Court. But one of his last major cases was a simple patent dispute in which he represented Charles Goodyear, who was defending his patent for the vulcanization of rubber, which he was awarded on June 15, 1844.

Webster at first was not interested in taking the case. He was not feeling well, he’d have to travel, and he didn’t think it was all that important. Then Goodyear offered him $15,000 and Black Dan changed his mind. The sum, he said, would almost serve to pay off all his debts. So he took Goodyear’s case, and won it.

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The Day the World Didn’t End

On Oct. 22, 1844, thousands of people gathered in small groups across the country in anticipation of the second coming of Christ. These followers of a humble, self-taught preacher named William Miller were convinced that the Bible’s
Book of Daniel laid out a chronology that ended with this day. Many had sold their farms, closed their shops and quit their jobs in anticipation, although Miller had never urged anyone to do this.

“I have never taught a neglect of any of the duties of life, which make us good parents, children, neighbors, or citizens,” he wrote. “Those who have taught the neglect of these … acted in opposition to my uniform teachings.” Still, the faithful were so sure that the end was nigh that many surrendered their earthly possessions.

They gathered in churches, in homes, on hilltops, waiting through the day and into the night.

But Christ did not come, and Miller’s followers were bewildered. They suffered considerable scorn from their neighbors. The press of the day ridiculed them. Even other religious leaders had a field day in deriding the Millerites.

Many of the disappointed left the movement, but others listened to the calls of leaders such as Joshua Himes, Miller’s right-hand man, and remained true to the idea of the soon coming of Christ — without the deadline of a specific date. Over several years, structures evolved that resulted in the formation of several adventist churches with their roots in the Millerite movement, including the Seventh Day Adventists, which today rivals the Mormons as one of the largest American-born religious sects.

Oct. 22, 1844, came to be known as the Great Disappointment, but it spelled the end neither for the Adventist movement in particular nor the notion of end-of-the-worldism generally. Somewhere today, somebody is manning a street corner with a sandwich board, claiming the end is nigh. One of these days, somebody will be right.

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Dump the Home Plate Ump

Most people would consider me a “traditionalist” when it comes to baseball, and in many ways I am. But in one significant way I want to revolutionize the game: It’s time to launch a movement to get umpires out of the ball-and-strike business.

First, let’s dispense with the clichéd piety that “they get it right 99 percent of the time.”

No, they don’t.

Watch any game with a QuesTec or other digital batter’s box. What  you’ll see is that rather than getting it right 99 percent of the time, the typical Major League umpire is lucky if he  gets it right 50 percent of the time – “it” being the most fundamental part of the umpire’s job, calling balls and strikes.

It’s a hard job. I’ve done it, and it’s hard even in Babe Ruth ball. It is exponentially more difficult in the majors, with 100 mph fastballs and exploding breaking pitches. Which is precisely my point. It is much too difficult – and much too important – to be left to fallible humans.

Use the technology, put an umpire in the booth with a PitchTrack, and let him get it right 100 percent of the time.

Here’s why.

Home plate umps get called balls and strikes wrong, by my reckoning over several seasons of watching games almost every night, just about half the time.

And getting it wrong means umps are virtually determining the outcomes of at bats, and thus of games. The 1-1 pitch is the most important pitch in baseball. The MLB average for a hitter with a 2-1 count is .339. For 1-2 count? .171.

Think about that. A 168-point difference. And the ump making that call gets it wrong almost half the time.

Are they crooked? No. Incompetent? Some are. But the truth is that what they’re being asked to do is almost impossible for the human eye. It always has been. We just didn’t know it until the advent of instant replay and laser technology. We put up with wildly inconsistent strike zones from umpire to umpire, from inning to inning, even from pitch to pitch, because we had to.

We don’t have to anymore.

Add an umpire to each crew and put him in the booth. He can use the technology to get the call right (he could also be the replay umpire, which would speed up those calls that need to be reviewed and thus speed up the game, but that’s another post). No more arguing about balls and strikes. Fewer players thrown out of games. More consistent strike zones. Happier hitters. Pitchers who know where to work the ball.

The technology exists in every ballpark. It’s easy and reliable. Communicating from the booth to the plate would take less time than it takes Tim McClelland to call a pitch, and much less time than it takes Joe West to get into position to make a call on the bases.

You’d still need an ump at home, to make calls on plays at the plate, check swings, hit batters, foul or fair on balls before they reach a base, and to take the calls from the man in the booth.

But get them out of the ball-and-strike business. They’re not up to the job, and the job is too important.

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Cave v. Cave

How do you get a 10-year-old interested in the election of 1844? Tell him Cave Johnson played an important part.

Cave Johnson, a congressman, was a close advisor of fellow Tennessean James K. Polk, the Democratic candidate for president in 1844.

Now, that is probably of little or no interest to most 10-year-olds, even mine. But the onetime Indian fighter and future postmaster general shares a name with a key figure in a popular video game called Portal.

That Cave Johnson got the kid’s attention.

The video Cave bears a striking resemblance to the real Cave, although he is portrayed by actor J.K. Simmons (the guy from the Farmers Insurance commercials).

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And both have been known to utter a pithy phrase from time to time.

Here’s Portal’s Cave: “Science isn’t about why, it’s about why not. You ask: Why is so much of our science dangerous? I say: Why not marry safe science if you love it so much? In fact, why not invent a special safety door that won’t hit you in the butt on the way out, because you are fired.”

Polk’s Cave could be just as entertaining, particularly on the topic of science, which was clearly not his best subject, comparing the newly invented telegraph to the machinations of a mesmerist.

Johnson would quickly come to regret his faulty judgment about Samuel F.B. Morse’s miraculous invention, introduced in that election year. But he never did quite figure out what to make of it, rejecting an offer the next year to buy the Washington-to-Baltimore telegraph line for the government, arguing that “the operation of the telegraph between [Washington] and Baltimore has not satisfied me that, under any rate of postage that can be adopted, its revenues can be made equal to its expenditures.”

And he ran the post office.

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