Wednesday, June 19, 1996

A Tribute to Mel Allen

by Joshua Hammerman
Delivered at his Funeral, June 19, 1996

There is a prayer that Jews recite three times daily known as the Amida. This is in many ways our most significant prayer, containing within it the essence of our personal and collective aspirations. And it begins with a peculiar line, always recited silently, taken from Psalm 51. "Lord, open my lips that my words might speak your praise." This phrase is actually a prayer that we be able to pray. For Judaism is a faith that emphasizes the significance of each word, and considers each word uttered with perfect authenticity a prayer. Each breath is a prayer, each utterance, if authentic, is an expression of our Godliness, each sentence, if it comes from the soul, is testimony to the wonder of being alive, of the miracles that God has given us.

Mel Allen's life was one long, extended, exhaustive, exhilarating, triumphant prayer. It was a call to all of us to see the sublimity in the smallest things, the pitch one inch off the corner, the stolen sign, the first seasonal shifts of the wind. And as for the larger things, he coined the most sublime expression of wonder of all, radical amazement in three short words: "How About That." To have lived to have been able to witness something worth a "How About That," that, to him was a gift. Whether it was a triple play or a mammoth clout, with those three words, Mel Allen was able to elevate broadcasting to the realm of prayer, not just for him, but for the millions who clung to every word he spoke. And he was so fortunate, and he knew it, to have seen Gehrig and Ruth, to have chronicled the heroic deeds of Mantle and Dimaggio, to have placed the imprint of the bard on Don Larson's moment, to have helped us all to say, week after week, night after night, "How About That."

Mel Allen was a good, humble and sensitive man. He was a loving son who took care of his parents in their old age -- only, through his sensitivity, he led his parents to believe that they were moving up here from Alabama to help him. When his father was ill, he said to them, "I need you to make a home for me up here." Such exquisite sensitivity. And after they passed on, they continued to be in his thoughts. Every year, at our memorial service in the cemetery next door, Mel would be there, with his sister Esther of course, to remember.

Imagine the kindness of this man, a man in a position to be overpowering and cruel and get away with it; but not Mel. He understood the sheer miracle of his good fortune in life and recognized the power of his words. Imagine, his was a voice that spoke so many millions of words, so many millions, heard by so many millions of people, and yet how few of those words were spoken in anger or bitterness, how few shaming another person, how few containing the gossip that poisons today's vernacular, and how many simple words of wonder and praise. It was as if every time he sat in front of a microphone or otherwise opened his mouth he uttered that line from psalms, "Lord, open my lips so that my words might speak your praise."

Mel would probably be laughing right now, because of his humility, and he never spoke of death, never really prepared himself or us for this moment. He wouldn't have wanted us to make a big deal: we're talking about a man who in grammar school was allowed to skip a grade in the middle of the year and he never thought to tell his parents. But with all due respect to his humility, we must speak his praise. Bert Parks once called him the nicest man in the whole industry. Walter Cronkite telephoned him at home a short while back, and that call really touched Mel. While the two had been at the same network they hardly ever conversed, but Walter wanted to thank him, decades after the fact, for being so kind in showing him around the studio when he was just starting out.

In the '50s when Mel was at the height of his career, he received a call from an assistant football coach in the midwest who had some interest in being a sportscaster. Mel Allen spent over an hour with this young man on the phone and left a lasting impression. It was only years later that George Steinbrenner reminded him of the incident.

His kindness went beyond normal expectations. As a teacher in Alabama, he once gave a failing grade to Bear Bryant. But he did it nicely. And in his '20s, Mel Allen actually decked someone, a Klansman. He beat the tar out of him, and then years later he found out that they guy was living in Connecticut, so Mel called him and said, "You want another lickin'?" The man couldn't remember who it was, so Mel took him to lunch. It says in Proverbs, "If your enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat." Mel had a knack of turning enemies into friends.

When we think of Mel Allen, it will be with that microphone in front of him, but let us first recall the kind words that always came out of the mouth that spoke into that mike. He achieved greatness through hard work and good fortune and genuine talent, but never through malice, deceit or backstabbing. He achieved every honor imaginable, he is a resident of several Halls of Fame, but it didn't change him one bit.

And when we think of Mel, inevitably we'll think of baseball. Undoubtedly, some of you are here today mourning today not only the loss of a good person but the end of an era, a time when baseball reminded us of all that was good, an innocence that baseball has long since lost but Mel himself maintained until the end. We felt that as long as Mel was with us, maybe we could regain that lost youth, that passion, that innocence. But here we are: today is the day when the man who coined the name Joltin' Joe has left and gone away. Baseball's era of gentility lies before us.

And we are here to mourn the silencing of that voice. A journalist once called him the Homer of homers. Now that can be taken in many ways; but the intention was to designate Mel as the Homeric poet of the home run. His magnificent descriptive talents were on display especially when the drama hit its heights, and this gift was matched perfectly with a team and a time that immortalized him as he immortalized them. Another journalist once exclaimed that his voice had been decorated by a florist. I can see that. It resonated, but with class, with style, with a combination of southern grace and Jewish irony: And that fabulous sense of humor, well that was both southern and Jewish. Night after night, October after October, Mel Allen composed the epic poem of baseball's Homeric age. And for that he'll live on long after most of the heroes he described have faded from memory.

Most who knew Mel know that his passion for his work was unquenchable. He never really stopped working. Just over the past several days, he was making preparations to return to This Week in Baseball. Through an illness that would have stopped lesser men, I saw Mel struggling, and at times doubting it all, but never willing to give in to it. For him, giving up his work, and his game, would have meant giving in. He didn't keep working for ego or status. Undoubtedly it gave him satisfaction to be appreciated, I know how much that meant to him to be so much a part of the Yankee family. But Mel didn't do this for the glory. To silence his voice would have been to silence his soul.

Two years ago, just hours prior to Yom Kippur, baseball officially cancelled the World Series for the first time in Mel's lifetime. Everywhere, people were in deep mourning. How could it be the fall without the Fall Classic? Where would our heroes come from? What would become of our nation without our national pastime? The baseball world, the country and the calendar were entering an autumnal abyss.

I wasn't sure what to say to Mel that evening. I wanted to comfort him in the hope that he could comfort me. So I said to him, "Such a sad day." And Mel, in his matter of fact way, which could often mask deep wisdom as plain common sense, replied: "This is not a tragedy. War, now that's tragic. Poverty and hunger, that's a tragedy. This is not a tragedy."

And I ascended this pulpit that night a whole lot wiser. Mr. Baseball, the one I had thought lived and breathed only for the game, made me understand that it was just a game, a game which lived and breathed through him, but only inasmuch as it expressed the drama, beauty and poetry of life. It wasn't the game that mattered: it was the living and breathing. It was on that night that the Voice of the Yankees enabled this Red Sox fan to understand that ultimately we are all on the same team.

Mr. Baseball had his priorities straight. So while he will best be remembered for his association with the sport, and while one of his final activities was watching the Yankees win on Sunday, let us never forget the lesson he taught me that night. Let us mourn today not because baseball has severed its final tie to innocence, but because the human race has lost a voice that brought us closer to one another and closer to God. And let us celebrate today too. For Mel's voice, which was his essence, which became the essence of his sport, will never be silenced. The Lord opened his mouth, his words spoke God's praise, and those words will reverberate unto eternity.

May that voice continue to resonate through the heavens and through our souls, and may his gentle spirit be bound up in the web of life.

Friday, June 7, 1996

Superabbi: The Flawed Model

New York Jewish Week: 1996

Item: A seventh grader's soccer coach has scheduled a practice for Rosh Hashanah. She walks up to him and says, "You'd better change this or my rabbi's gonna beat you up." She later relates the story to me, with a proud smile on her face. I pray that the coach is not a black belt.

Item: I am welcomed to a new congregation at a service filled with intense excitement and anticipation. The cantor dedicates a new musical composition in my honor, based on Isaiah, called "The Lord is in Our Midst." I fret that expectations are running a tad high.

Item: A large, influential group of Jews proclaims that their rabbi is the Messiah. The rabbi dies, but some insist that he is still the Messiah and will soon return.

The role of the rabbi has always been complex, but lately it appears to have broken the bounds of all human capability. There have been wonder-working rabbis for centuries, but none until now have been called upon to pull off the greatest miracle of all: to single-handedly fill the gaping spiritual hole in the postmodern, alienated Jewish soul. This is a job for Superabbi.

Like frantic Lois Lanes falling from a burning building, people are reaching out; people without roots, without purpose, all stretching their arms toward Superabbi to heal, to shepherd, to redeem them. Skeptical people, betrayed by the very modernity that promised them salvation, now turn to this lonely man of faith imploring, "Make my life full, before it is too late....

...Only don't expect me to commit to anything.

...Only I don't want my friends to see that I am vulnerable.

...And don't forget, it's because of you that I'm so alienated."

And who is "you?" "You" is what I've come to call the O.B.R., the One Bad Rabbi. All it takes is one, and a Jew can be turned off to Judaism for life. Apparently, most of us have had him, and we all went to the O.B.H.S., the One Bad Hebrew School, where this O.B.R. used to rap knuckles and force kids to sing the Sh'ma while screeching chalk along the blackboard with sadistic pleasure. Whatever this O.B.R. did, and it ranges from giving O.L.S. (One Lousy Sermon) to adultery, what matters is that he fell short of expectations, and therefore so did Judaism. The O.B.R. is the one reason I hear more than any other for individuals having been turned off to organized Jewish life.

If the O.B.R. is so dangerous, it's because he is Superabbi unmasked. If we were to not rely so heavily on Superabbi to save us, we'd be far less susceptible to the inevitable revelation that rabbis are fallible. Judaism is too important, and its future too uncertain, for Jews to place its fate in the hands of a single human being.

Or maybe the O.B.R. is just a convenient excuse for those who long ago left the fold but don't want to blame the other likely culprits: Mommy and Daddy, conformity, greed, fear and self-hatred. Whatever the reason, the O.B.R. has got to go, and Superabbi with it.

Through the ages, Jews have had a knack of creating the perfect model of leadership to match their needs. In ancient Israel, kings and prophet answered the call for military might and social justice. In Babylonian exile and beyond, prophets became more comforting and priests arose to create the rituals that would bring the people back into God's favor.

Then, in the wake of the Second Temple's destruction, the rabbinic model of scholar/arbiter/teacher and part-time miracle worker came to dominate the Jewish world. The source of his power was clearly his ability to reason. In the melting pot of 20th century America, the rabbi was converted from teacher to pastor/shepherd, so he could be just like the Christian clergy next door, but with all the ancient Jewish trappings of the miracle worker intact. When the holy man is a teacher, his holiness endows him with wisdom, but otherwise he remains human; when the holy man is primarily a pastor, however, his mere touch can bring salvation.

That kind of promise arouses superhuman expectations -- and disappointments.

Further, if the rabbi is a shepherd, that makes the rest of us sheep. O.K., so Moses, David and Akiba started out as shepherds, but they didn't have to worry about an intermarriage rate of 52 percent and climbing. If the rabbi is a shepherd, he has to lead the flock up the hillside, pulling, pushing and cajoling. Superabbi is expected to get those sheep to the destination, even if they don't want to go.

I have a better idea. How about the rabbi as a co-traveler, a very well educated member of the flock? I chose this model for myself long ago. I don't push or pull my companions, I share my experiences and learn from theirs; together we strive to reach the thick pasture at the top of the hill.

As I see it, I am a spiritual leader simply because I want to refine my own spirit, using the texts of my tradition for guidance, and, in doing so, possibly to inspire others to do the same. I am no different from my friends on the journey, except that I have some wisdom as a tourguide that I share where appropriate.

I believe that the rabbi is neither holier than others nor less human. The extent to which the rabbi can share his humanness, in fact, is the extent to which he can touch the lives of those who choose to travel along. To be the "perfect rabbi," therefore, is not to avoid mistakes, but to make them and then grow from them.

It is time to reaffirm the original intent of the rabbinic model as teacher and spiritual guide, in order to rescue our communities from the ravages of unmet expectations. If Superabbi is allowed to survive, we're setting ourselves up for a fall. In the end, there will be only burnt out rabbis and dissatisfied congregants, lots of O.B.R.s and very few Jews.