The Irony of Smoking

I have a mostly joking theory that we won World War II because we had better cigarettes than the Axis. Stay with me here and I’ll explain that. But first, some background.

I grew up in North Carolina in the 1950s and ‘60s. By the time I was a teenager, the egregious sins of the tobacco companies and the serious health threats caused by smoking were just starting to come to light. So during my formative years I was steeped in a pro-tobacco culture before the anti-smoking movement really got underway.

When I was a kid, I could tell you the brand names of all the cigarettes that were made in North Carolina as well as the companies that produced them and the cities where they were manufactured.

I knew that tobacco had been a dominant part of the state’s economy since Reconstruction, and was a major factor in the growth of the state’s largest cities – especially Durham and Winston-Salem, which basically were built from the ground up by tobacco. Tobacco also put new shoes on kids’ feet and food on families’ tables. It helped pay for schools, hospitals, county courthouses, some outstanding universities and a state road system that is one of the nation’s best.

I smoked for about 15 years. I especially enjoyed it when I went through Army basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, when I was 23. When we were out in the field, the drill sergeants would give us a 10-minute break every hour or so. During that break, I could go off by myself, sit down against a pine tree, take off that heavy steel helmet, lay my M-16 rifle across my lap, and light up a cigarette. I could kick my mind into neutral, stare into the woods, and watch the smoke slowly dissipate when I exhaled.

That smoke break gave me a few idle moments alone. No screaming drill sergeants. No lugging a rifle and sweating beneath a field pack and that damned helmet. It was a small island of tranquility in the swirling sea of tedious aggravation and exertion that is Army basic training.

There were a few guys in my company that didn’t smoke, but they were a minority. I have no idea if they enjoyed those breaks as much as I did. But they could not possibly have enjoyed them any more than I.

I was never a heavy smoker. A pack of 20 cigarettes usually lasted me several days. I quit smoking in 1982 after a bout with Rocky Mountain spotted fever. I didn’t know I could be that ill and still be alive when it was all over. I was sick in bed for about two weeks, and it was a month before I started really getting back on my feet. During that time, the last thing I wanted was a cigarette. So when I finally did recover, I decided that since I’d been so long without smoking, I might as well quit.

So I did. No nicotine patches, no tapering off, no belief that I was fighting an addiction, no backsliding. I just quit. I got a little antsy a few times during the first month, but after that it became easier.

I don’t know how many people were smoking when I quit, but I do know that not nearly as many people smoke today as they did even 25 years ago, when the anti-smoking movement was becoming imbedded in American popular culture. As my wife – a lifelong non-smoker – pointed out recently, the pleasure that can come from smoking is no longer common knowledge among most people.

Today, smokers exist at the fringes of American society. You see them huddled outside buildings grabbing a quick smoke, looking around guiltily as they puff away. They are today’s lepers and considered fair game for the contempt of non-smokers. And some non-smokers do seem to enjoy the self-righteous satisfaction that they get from heaping scorn upon smokers.

I’ve never cared much for self-righteousness, and so I’ve found that being in the presence of zealous anti-smokers is often more unpleasant than being in the presence of someone who’s smoking. They say second-hand smoke is bad for you, but doesn’t sanctimoniousness give off some kind of toxin as well?

And recalling the moments of relaxation and contemplation during those smoke breaks in Army basic training, I’m wondering if, in the old days, tobacco didn’t provide some kind of subtle social lubricant and mild tranquilizer that helped us get through life’s daily aggravations and frustrations. How many outbursts of anger were avoided because someone walked away from a tense moment and had a smoke? How many friendships were started because someone asked a stranger for a light? And how many knotty problems were solved during a smoke break? Sherlock Holmes smoked, and sometimes he calculated the difficulty of a problem by the number of pipes he'd smoke while pondering a solution.

Of course, lung cancer, heart disease and emphysema are a steep price to pay for a few moments of relaxation, but life is full of contradictions and ironies. We’re undoubtedly healthier for not smoking, but sometimes I think the world -- or at least the United States -- has become a bitchier place without tobacco.

And speaking of ironies, that brings me back to that opening comment about World War II. The ad at the top of this entry is from January 1942, America’s darkest days of the war. The Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor only a few weeks earlier and were dominating the Pacific. Adolph Hitler had conquered most of Europe and seemed on the verge of taking Great Britain.

America's fighting men were calming their nerves and focusing their efforts by lighting up Camels and Lucky Strikes as they fought fascism all around the world.

Hitler and the Nazis were ardently opposed to smoking, and smoking was banned in all Nazi office buildings. Hitler’s fascist partner, Benito Mussolini, didn’t like smoking or smokers either.

By contrast, Franklin Roosevelt smoked heavily despite his doctor’s repeated warnings. Winston Churchill also was a heavy smoker.

So my point is sort of like that old joke about the guy sitting in Central Park, banging two sticks together to keep the tigers away. On the one hand, his claim that he’s keeping tigers away is nuts. On the other hand, well, there certainly are no tigers in Central Park.

So who’s to say that the strategies and tactics that won World War II didn’t come from the Allies’ planning sessions in smoke-filled rooms, where tensions were eased and focus was sharpened because the participants were smoking? And how many military and political geniuses who could have caused enormous problems for the Allies were shunned by Hitler, Mussolini, and their anti-smoking zealots?

Yes, I know, it’s a screwy theory. But then, the smokers won the war, and the anti-smokers lost.


Once, it was "quite the thing" to go to the Polo Grounds

Sixty years ago, you wouldn’t have had any difficulty finding the Polo Grounds. It was New York City’s oldest and most historic sports venue and had been tucked beneath Coogan’s Bluff overlooking the Harlem River since 1891. Any cabbie in the city could have driven straight to the ballpark, and many 12-year-old kids in Manhattan probably could have given you directions. And the elevated railway had a stop near the stadium’s entrance at 155th Street.

But a lot of water has gone under the nearby Macombs Dam Bridge since the Polo Grounds was demolished in 1964, and the city’s collective memory of the birthplace of New York professional sports has faded. So when we went on our second annual pre-New Year’s trek to the sites of the city’s vanished stadiums last Sunday, we had to do some searching.

Turns out the Polo Grounds hasn’t been remembered any better than Ebbets Field. A year ago, we found New York’s obscure monument to Brooklyn’s “Boys of Summer” nearly hidden by a bush at the massive public housing complex that was built on the site of that storied ballpark. That adventure was posted on Side Salad, a lively and entertaining blog produced by my old pal Jeff Houck in Tampa.

After scouring the Washington Heights neighborhood, my brother-in-law, Bob Morrow, finally found Polo Grounds Towers, another huge public housing complex that was built on the land where Willie Mays once patrolled the outfield. But it took a knowledgeable baseball fan named Ricardo Miranda, who works at the complex, to steer us to a couple of markers commemorating the long-ago stadium.


We found this faded, weathered sign on one of the towers. It reads “Welcome to the Polo Grounds Towers. This development was built on the location that Willie Mays and the Giants made famous. Let’s keep it beautiful.”


Not far away, we found this battered plaque marking the spot where home place once was.


My wife Jane shot this pic of our nephew, John Morrow, and me at the site. Presumably, this is the approximate spot where one of sports’ most dramatic moments occurred on October 3, 1951, when Bobby Thomson hit a three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to defeat the hated Brooklyn Dodgers 5-4 and win a pennant-deciding playoff game. There's a YouTube video of that legendary homer at this link.

We’d heard that somewhere in the complex is a stairway that once descended to a stadium ticket booth, and I read later that there’s supposedly a plaque marking the spot where Willie Mays made what many fans consider the greatest play of all time during the first game of the 1954 World Series. But it was a raw and bitterly cold day, not conducive to tramping around the site looking for ghosts of summers past, so I can’t verify that the Mays plaque exists.

You can, however, see Mays’ astonishing catch at this link on YouTube.

At one time, the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field formed the axis of one of the great rivalries of sports. The rivalry between the Giants and the Dodgers reached its apex after World War II, when New York was home to three Major League teams and was the center of the baseball universe. In the 11 seasons between 1947 and 1957, a New York team played in the World Series 10 times. And seven of those Series were between New York teams.

Polo was never actually played at the Polo Grounds. The stadium’s name was derived from an earlier, nearby arena that was used for polo. When a new wooden stadium was built at a different location in 1891, it was christened the Polo Grounds.

This sketch from Historic Ballparks: A Panoramic Vision, by John Pastier, shows the stadium as it appeared at the turn of the 19th century.

In its heyday, the fans and reporters who came to sporting events at the Polo Grounds didn’t gush about the stadium’s architectural beauty or wax lyrically about the nostalgia it evoked. But it was a New York social center. On April 18, 1910, The New York Times reported that the Giants would open the season that day at the Polo Grounds.

“Weather permitting, it will be a great gathering of townsfolk, including Mayor Gaynor and a number of invited guests,” the Times said. “The opening day at the Polo Grounds has become a fixed institution, and it is quite the thing to be there, for most everybody else will be.”

The wooden ballpark burned about a year later, but the Giants soon were back in business on the same spot in a new concrete-and-steel structure.

The new Polo Grounds was a utilitarian washtub of a stadium that was noteworthy more for its bizarre baseball configuration than for graceful lines and inspiring vistas. The postcard at the top of this entry is from the early 1920s. Home runs were cheap for pull hitters. The left field foul pole was only 279 feet from home plate, and it was only 258 feet to the right field foul pole. But the distance to dead center field was 485 feet – out of reach for most mortals.

In 1913, the New York Yankees joined the Giants as tenants of the Polo Grounds. Later, the Yankees acquired a promising young slugger named Babe Ruth. Ruth drew so many fans to see him hit home runs in the Polo Grounds that the Yankees soon built their own stadium in the Bronx, just across the Harlem from the Giants’ home.

Yankee Stadium is shown at the bottom of this photo, and the Polo Grounds is at the top.

The Polo Grounds seating capacity was expanded to about 55,000 in 1923, and the stadium started hosting important college football games.

This postcard, probably from the late 1940s or early 1950s, shows the stadium as it appeared after the expansion.
In October 1924, Notre Dame came to town to play Army, and the game was considered so important that it was played at the Polo Grounds. Grantland Rice, a sportswriter for the New York Herald-Tribune, was greatly impressed with Notre Dame’s backfield. In his story about the game, Rice referred to the four backs as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and said they “formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone” that swept the Irish to victory over Army.

In 1925, New York’s professional football team, also named the Giants, started playing their home games in the infant National Football League at the Polo Grounds. The stadium also hosted boxing matches and other events, making it New York’s most important gathering place.

But despite playing in two World Series and winning one of them between 1951 and 1954, attendance at the Polo Grounds was in a nosedive in the late 1950s. The stadium fell into disrepair, and the Yankees – with future Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford – were consistently drawing twice the number of fans that the Giants attracted. In 1956, the Giants’ attendance was only about 629,000, and in 1957 it was only about 654,000.

Meanwhile, the football Giants had moved across the river to Yankee Stadium.

On September 19, 1957, the Pittsburgh Pirates defeated the Giants 9-1 in their last baseball game in the Polo Grounds. A few months later, the Giants joined their rivals, the Dodgers, in moving to California.

Ebbets Field was torn down in 1960, but the Polo Grounds got a brief stay of execution thanks to the expansion of Major League baseball and the creation of the American Football League. The New York Mets joined the National League and became tenants of the Polo Grounds. And the New York Titans played their home games against AFL opponents there.

But the end came in 1963. On September 29, 3,899 fans showed up at the Polo Grounds to watch the last baseball game at the stadium. The Mets were pounded by Houston, 13-4. And on December 13, the Buffalo Bills beat New York’s AFL team, now called the Jets, 19-10. The final football game drew only 5,826 fans.

The Mets and the Jets moved to the new Shea Stadium in Queens in 1964. The new ballpark was one of the round, cookie-cutter-style all-purpose arenas that began appearing in the 1960s. These new mega-stadiums were symmetrical, devoid of character, cleansed of all architectural quirks, and nearly identical. In a word, they were soulless.

In April 1964, demolition workers started tearing down the Polo Grounds with the same wrecking ball that had been used to demolish Ebbets Field. That same month, writer and baseball fan Roger Angell commented on the destruction of the Polo Grounds in an elegant essay for the April 25 issue of The New Yorker magazine.

“What does depress us about the demise of the bony, misshapen old playground,” Angell wrote, “is the attendant, irrevocable deprivation of habit – the amputation of so many private, repeated and easily renewable small familiarities. … All these we mourn, for their loss constitutes the death of still another neighborhood – a small landscape of distinctive and reassuring familiarity. Demolition and loss are a painful city commonplace, but as our surroundings become more undistinguished and indistinguishable, we sense, at last, that our environs are being replaced by mere events, and we are stabbed by the realization that we may not possess the score cards and record books to help us remember who we are and what we have seen and loved.”