June 2013

215 Montague Street

Plaque at 215 Montague Street

Plaque at 215 Montague Street

I was delighted to speak yesterday at the site of the Brooklyn Dodger offices at 215 Montague Street. Chevrolet sponsored a four-stop baseball tour for media types who would be driven (or themselves drive) an electric-powered Chevy Volt to each site after the starting point of the MLB Fan Cave. Not knowing that I would be speaking outdoors in full sun for the second stop on the trail, I had prepared a 15-minute talk that stayed in my pocket. Sunstroke made for poor public relations, I figured. I winged it, but this is the talk I would have offered. Portions of it are based on an article that Jules Tygiel and I published in SPORT Magazine in June 1988.

It happened right here, on Montague Street. This is where the national pastime at last began to live up to its name.

The team is gone, the building is gone—even the address is gone, as is the bank that presented the plaque—but the echoes linger, and the spirit remains. Here, on August 28, 1945, Jackie Robinson, shortstop of the Kansas City Monarchs, first met Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. After a dramatic, challenging interview that has become the stuff of legend, the two signed an agreement that would begin to remove from baseball its historic stain. Each year Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day on April 15 to mark the anniversary of his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, but here we stand on no less hallowed ground.

Lobby card from "Jackie Robinson Story" depicts the scene on August 28, 1945.

Lobby card from “Jackie Robinson Story” depicts the scene on August 28, 1945.

Today little is left of the city that was, let alone its favorite game. In New York the only constant through four centuries has been relentless, roaring change—hills flattened, ponds filled, streams diverted, buildings demolished, neighborhoods dismantled, all in the name of progress. Shea Stadium and the House That Ruth Built are gone, as are Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds, and several other sites of big-league games. A baseball-history tourist in New York must walk in four dimensions rather than three, the fourth being that of memory–aided by stories and statistics and nostalgic collectibles. Because it is harder to collect buildings than baseball cards, however, few edifices remain that might bear mute testimony to the game that was.

Baseball is a game of ghostly presences, always just one step away from revival. MLB’s Fan Cave, the hippest of baseball landmarks (which marked the first stop on today’s tour), sits one block away from the old Grand Central Hotel site, where on February 2, 1876 the National League was founded. Walking distance from where we stand, at the corner of Clinton and Livingston Streets—No. 133—is an improbable survivor of baseball’s earliest days, the clubhouse of the Brooklyn Excelsiors, the most famous team in the land in 1860.

But let’s focus on 215 Montague Street. A ten-story structure, tall for the 19th century, stood here until the 1960s, when it was replaced by a four-story building, since anchored by a succession of banks. The Dodgers’ office was located on the fourth floor. It housed all the executives, major league and minor league, and their staffs. Fans who wanted to purchase advance tickets could buy them here. The Dodgers started using this location in 1938, and when Branch Rickey came along four years later this building would begin to take on national significance, if at first secretly.

Rickey, who had long wished to integrate baseball, knew that St. Louis, where he had been the general manager for decades, was an impossible venue for his great experiment. “St. Louis never permitted Negro patrons in the grandstand,” Rickey once wrote.

Robinson’s appearance here on August 28 was by no means the first step Rickey had taken toward fulfilling his vision of an integrated national pastime. And Rickey knew that Sam Jethroe or Monte Irvin, not Robinson, was the most talented player in the Negro Leagues at that time. So why did Rickey choose him? Strength of character and a collegiate background have been the conventional explanations, but behind the scenes there was more at work.

Jackie Robinson comic book

Jackie Robinson comic book

From the moment he had arrived in Brooklyn in 1942, determined to end baseball’s Jim Crow traditions, Rickey had feared that premature disclosure of his intentions might doom his bold design. No blacks had appeared in the major leagues since 1884. During the ensuing half-century all-black teams and leagues featuring legendary figures like pitcher Satchel Paige and catcher Josh Gibson had performed on the periphery of Organized Baseball. Baseball executives, led by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, had strictly policed the color line, barring blacks from both major and minor leagues. Rickey therefore moved slowly and secretly to explore the issue and cover up his attempts to scout black players during his first three years in Brooklyn. He informed the Dodger owners of his plans but took few others into his confidence.

In the spring of 1945, as Rickey prepared to accelerate his scouting efforts, advocates of integration, emboldened by the recent death of Commissioner Landis, escalated their campaign to desegregate baseball. On April 6, black sportswriter Joe Bostic appeared at the Dodgers’ training camp with Negro League stars Terris McDuffie and Dave “Showboat” Thomas and forced Rickey to hold tryouts for the two players. Ten days later black journalist Wendell Smith engineered an unsuccessful audition with the Red Sox for Robinson and two other black athletes.

In the face of this heightened activity, Rickey created an elaborate smokescreen to obscure his scouting of black players. In May 1945 he announced the formation of a new franchise, the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers, and a new Negro League, the United States League. He named fabled Negro Leagues star Oscar Charleston as the club’s manager and undercover scout. Rickey then dispatched his best talent hunters to observe black ballplayers, ostensibly for the Brown Dodgers, but in reality for the Brooklyn National League club.

The popular “frontier” image of Jackie Robinson as a lone gunman facing down a hostile mob has always dominated the story of the integration of baseball. But while Robinson was the linchpin in Branch Rickey’s strategy, in October 1945 Rickey intended to announce the signing of not just Jackie Robinson, but of several other Negro League stars. Political pressure, however, forced Rickey’s hand, thrusting Robinson into the spotlight all alone.

The agreement that Jackie Robinson signed right here on August 28, 1945 was a tightly guarded secret. It bound him to the Brooklyn organization but stipulated that he was to be signed to a player’s contract with the top farm club at Montreal before November 1. Rickey impressed upon Robinson the need to maintain silence. He could tell the momentous news to his family and fiancee, but no one else.

Jackie Robinson as a Kansas City Royal, batting.

Jackie Robinson as a Kansas City Royal, batting.

After his meeting with Rickey, Robinson returned briefly to the Kansas City Monarchs. With the Dodger offer securing his future and the relentless bus trips of the Negro League schedule wearing him down, he left the Monarchs before season’s end and returned home to Pasadena, California. In late September he hooked up with Chet Brewer’s Kansas City Royals, a postseason barnstorming team which toured the Pacific Coast, competing against other Negro League teams and major- and minor-league all-star squads.

Rickey worked with publicist Arthur Mann to pen an article for Look Magazine, timed to release at the time of Robinson’s signing with Montreal. It never ran, but I located it in the Rickey papers at the Library of Congress. “The Negro and Baseball,” as it was titled, departs radically from the common picture of the Robinson legend. “Determined not to be charged with merely nibbling at the problem,” wrote Mann, “Rickey went all out and brought in two more Negro players,” and “consigned them, with Robinson, to the Dodgers’ top farm club, the Montreal Royals.” Mann named pitcher Don Newcombe and, surprisingly, outfielder Sam Jethroe as Robinson’s future teammates. Whether the recruitment of additional blacks had always been Rickey’s intention or whether he had reached his decision after meeting with Robinson in August is unclear. But by late September, when he provided information to Mann for his article, Rickey had clearly decided to bring in other Negro League stars.

At the same time, Rickey decided to postpone publication of the Look article. In a remarkable letter sent from the World Series in Chicago on October 7, Rickey informed Mann:

Robinson with Montreal Royals, 1946

Robinson with Montreal Royals, 1946

We just can’t go now with the article. The thing isn’t dead,-not at all. It is more alive than ever and that is the reason we can’t go with any publicity at this time. There is more involved in the situation than I had contemplated. Other players are in it and it may be that I can’t clear these players until after the December meetings, possibly not until after the first of the year. You must simply sit in the boat….

There is a November 1 deadline on Robinson,-you know that. I am undertaking to extend that date until January 1st so as to give me time to sign plenty of players and make one break on the complete story. Also, quite obviously it might not be good to sign Robinson with other and possibly better players unsigned.

In a mad scramble to sign Robinson before the November 1 deadline and before he departed to the Caribbean for a barnstorming trip, the Montreal Royals secured his signature on a contract on October 23. Newcombe, Campanella, John Wright, and Roy Partlow all joined the Dodger organization the following spring. Jethroe became a victim of the “deliberate speed” of baseball integration and did not reach the majors until 1950.

For Robinson, who had always occupied center stage in Rickey’s thinking, the early announcement intensified the pressures and enhanced the legend. The success or failure of integration rested disproportionately on his capable shoulders. He became the lightning rod for supporter and opponent alike, attracting the responsibility, the scorn and ultimately the acclaim for his historic achievement.

For Rickey the signing was the culmination of a decades-old dream. For Robinson, there would be triumph and tragedy ahead, but his breaking of the color bar started right here.

A New Baseball Discovery

Beloit's Middle College, built 1847

Beloit’s Middle College, built 1847

Baseball fever, catch it. When I am not thinking about the game, it can pop up insistently, reasserting its central position in my life. Let me tell you what happened to me just the other day.

I spent this past weekend in Wisconsin, at a reunion of the Beloit College class of 1968 (as well as many others ranging, in five-year intervals, from 1948 to 2003). I had been invited to give a talk, in the building where I had taken all of the courses that would run through my later life.

I had drafted most of the speech at home but left the finishing touches for my arrival on campus late Thursday afternoon. I checked into the Beloit Inn, tired from my flight to O’Hare and the drive from there to Beloit, just across the Illinois line. I unpacked and within an hour or so had added a few bits, mostly biographical. I figured my fellow Beloiters might wish to know how the mouthy kid they may have remembered came to devote four decades to documenting a children’s game. I wrote this: 

And after my Beloit years—as an English Lit major influenced by such titans of yore as Bink Noll, Bernie Morrissey, and Bob Ray—and a doctoral stint at Washington University in St. Louis, I came back to baseball. Or maybe I had never left it. As the chronically awful New York Mets marched toward an improbable championship in 1969, I found myself increasingly distracted from my dissertation on 17th century poet George Herbert, from which I turned away with more delight than guilt. 

George Herbert, The Temple, 1633

George Herbert, The Temple, 1633

The path was a twisty one, from flipping baseball cards against the stoop in the Bronx in 1953 to serving as MLB’s official historian 60 years later … and yet with the benefit of hindsight I can make it out as practically linear. It is good to be an old boy, continuing to care about so many of the same things that animated one’s youth.

Completing the speech, I thought to have an early dinner, minus the search for exotic cuisine. The hotel shared space with a steak joint (Merrill and Houston’s, named for an iron works founded in 1858) so I walked in—only to have my jaw drop. Perhaps four feet from my face was a gorgeous, seven-foot long, wood-type broadside printed in colors, promoting an upcoming event: the First Wisconsin Base Ball Tournament, commencing at Beloit on September 3, 1867. I knew nothing about this tournament (although I do now, from some rapid newspaper research in neighboring Janesville’s Gazette) and I certainly had not seen this ghostly vestige.

The entry to the restaurant was dim and I could not back away enough to get a clear image with my cellphone camera, but I managed a shot for reference value, at least. I figured I would follow up.

The waitress told me that she thought the poster was an original, on loan from the Beloit Historical Society (BHS), which had provided the nostalgically decorated steakhouse with a few three-dimensional objects as well as scores of photographic facsimiles. I raced through a very good dinner so that I could get back to my room and check the web; I needed to know if the BHS had a physical location and contact information. I located a BHS newsletter—“Confluence,” from Fall 2004—that noted the broadside’s acquisition but provided no particulars.

Beloit Historical Society, Lincoln Center

Beloit Historical Society, Lincoln Center

At noon the following day, as the BHS opened its doors, I called. Dwight Alton—the Facilities Manager and a professional photographer to boot—told me that he was certain the restaurant’s version was a copy and that the Society possessed the only original. It was on display at one of the Society’s buildings—the Lincoln Center, an archive and exhibition space so named because it formerly housed the Lincoln Junior High School. If I wished, I could see the original broadside that afternoon.

Beloit College alumni activities had just begun to percolate, but this choice was easy. The archives were in West Beloit, only a mile and a half from the hotel. Dwight even offered to shoot  a high-resolution image that he would transfer to a thumb drive.

At the door I was greeted not only by Dwight but also by Paul Kerr, the Executive Director. He told me that the broadside had resided undisturbed for a century in the attic of an elderly woman from South Beloit and that it had been there since long before her time. It arrived at the BHS in crumpled and bent form, folded over several times—yet it remained intact. Conservation efforts had restored it to a nearly pristine state, and because the broadside had slumbered in the dark all those years, the colors had seemed to lose none of their vibrancy. Dwight Alton’s photograph appears here courtesy of the Beloit Historical Society, its size and resolution somewhat reduced for the web.

First Annual State Base Ball Tournament, Beloit, Wisconsin 1867. Courtesy Beloit Historical Society.

First Annual State Base Ball Tournament, Beloit, Wisconsin 1867. Courtesy Beloit Historical Society.

Paul asked me if I believed the broadside was important or had monetary value. I assured him of both, and that the artistic value alone would incite appeal. We both recognized, however, that such thoughts were academic, because as a nonprofit organization dating to 1910, the BHS would never test the auction waters with an item of such strong Beloit relevance.

In a way, that’s too bad; I think I have an idea of what price this might fetch and I’ll never have that notion validated. The Society’s acquisition, casually displayed in facsimile for restaurant patrons who rush by it on their way to dinner, is the oldest surviving baseball broadside in existence.

Double Exposure

The Peskin Shot, from The Miracle at Merion

The Peskin Shot, from The Miracle at Merion

Today, as we near the fifth U. S. Open to be held at the Merion Golf Course in Ardmore, PA,  my friend Joe Posnanski published a fine story about the glory that was golfer Ben Hogan and the odd grandeur that was photographer Hy Peskin. (See: http://goo.gl/EkDqX) The world may know much about Hogan and little about Peskin, but each has been described, by people who ought to know, as the best that ever was in his line of work. I spent some time with Peskin 13 years ago and wrote about those days in 2005, not long after his death. That story appeared in the Woodstock (NY) Times and, thanks to Joe’s interest, reappears here verbatim at Our Game. Trust me, dear reader, there is enough baseball to hold your interest. When I posted this yesterday I had not yet found this treasure: on Facebook for more than two years with a mere 77 views. For hundreds of Peskin baseball images, almost all from the 1950s and in color, go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Cqd_kp11qg&feature=youtube_gdata_player

In the evening of January 11, 2000, I drove my rental car into the parking lot of the Holiday Inn in North Miramar, a bedroom community for San Diego. I had flown across the country to spend a week interviewing 84-year-old Hy Peskin for a book about his amazing career in sports photography, mysteriously cut short at its apex 35 years earlier when he abandoned not only his profession but also his name, changing it legally to Brian Blaine Reynolds. He was a legendarily difficult personality, with many admirers but few friends in the sports business. In truth, few people knew what had become of him and most presumed him long since dead.

Upon reaching my room I called the Reynolds household in nearby Murrieta, as I had been requested to do, advising him of my arrival.

“So, you want to get started?” Hy asked in his memorably raspy voice. Not really, I admitted, as I had been in transit for fifteen hours and was exhausted. I assured him I had driving instructions to his home in nearby Murrieta and would be glad see him at 8:00 a.m. sharp. He seemed disappointed but acknowledged that he too might be sharper in the morning.

Half an hour later there was an insistent knock at the door of my hotel room. I opened it to find a round old man in pajamas and bedroom slippers, with an overflowing scrapbook under his arm, who announced in the flamboyant style that would soon become familiar, “I couldn’t wait until morning. I’ve been waiting for you my whole life.” He was accompanied by two young boys wearing yarmulkes and payes, the curling sideburns of the Orthodox Jew. He introduced them as his adopted sons, Preston Blaine Reynolds and Brian Jeremy Reynolds, then turned to me with a stage whisper, “They never heard of Hy Peskin.”

Hy Peskin at Yankee Stadium

Hy Peskin at Yankee Stadium

So began the most memorable week of my professional life. Each morning I would interview Hy from the foot of his bed, where he lay with eyes hooded as he conjured up his past, in the pajamas that were never exchanged for conventional clothing. “You didn’t eat breakfast?” he said to me one day. “Want me to throw something on and we’ll go for an early lunch? In this restaurant that I like. We’ll go informal but we’ll go.” For this occasion he changed into a fresh pair of pajamas but kept the slippers. In the afternoons while Hy napped I would speak with his remarkable former wife Adriana McMinn (Godoy), now reconciled after an intervening marriage that had produced the children. Sometimes Hy and I would extend the interview to a second session, but generally not: he typically went to sleep at 6:00 p.m., right after his dinner.

Who was Hy Peskin? I had known him by the hundreds of photographs I had seen over the years, always distinctive in composition and density of color, always recognizably “a Peskin.” I knew that his challenging angles, unprecedented aerial shots, and unequaled athleticism had redefined his profession. I knew he had worked for Sports Illustrated (where he was the magazine’s first staff photographer), Life, Look, Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post, and more. What I didn’t know, however, could fill a book.

Hyman Peskin was born in Brooklyn on November 5, 1915 to Russian-born parents Sarah Sokolowsky and Elias Peskowitz (original name Pesachowitz), a tailor who lost his job in the early 1930s. “When I began to sell newspapers,” he told me, “we had been living in an apartment, $27 a month, and my family could hardly pay the rent. When I got them all selling papers, including my father, we moved to a better part of town, the magical Eastern Parkway area. I saved my family with the newspaper selling.”

A Life in the Shadows, the book that never was

A Life in the Shadows, the book that never was

He went to Brooklyn Evening High School for several years and appears not to have graduated. “I hardly ever went to class; I got off into another direction by having met a newspaper photographer, Izzy Kaplan [of the New York Mirror], and helping him at the ball games. First in Brooklyn and then later at the Polo Grounds, Yankee Stadium, other events, hoping through him to get a job at his newspaper which in those days paid $12 a week for an office boy. My goal was to be a writer and I thought through him maybe I could get that job. Incredibly I helped him every day, all kinds of events, without pay for three long years … it was 1933, 1934 and 1935. Finally I got the job and after a few months they approved me to transfer to be the office boy in the sports department. Later I left the sports department in great, great frustration because of a run-in with the editor, Dan Parker, and reluctantly asked to be transferred to the picture department, which I knew well but never had real, real interest in. I became the hypo-boy in the photo department, developing the pictures, writing the captions, things like that.”

In 1935 he married his sweetheart Blanche from Erasmus High, “the first girl I ever spoke to,” and became a full-time professional photographer, often shooting the Brooklyn Dodgers. But after enlisting in the Marines in 1943-44, he returned with an itch to experiment in stop-action color photography. Applying to the leading 30 magazines in the country, Peskin found that only Look had any interest and only the Daily Mirror had a job for him, his old one.

“With my great desire to move to higher levels, I scraped together about $10 and bought one box of Kodachrome and arranged with Saint Nicholas Arena that I could shoot a fight there [on May 11, 1945]. The fight happened to be a match between Lou Nova and a guy named Gunnar Barlund. Virtually every newspaper photographer had one camera, the Speed Graphic. Occasionally they would have the big, big long range cameras but day in, day out, they had a Speed Graphic…. You could shoot it from the back curtain or the front shutter, but you had one camera. When you went to a sporting event the limitations were tremendous. But in boxing you were okay, the action was 12 feet away, you could shoot a lot. I mounted on my Graphic not one flash bulb but a unique setup with three flashbulbs so when I pushed the button all three would go. I knew I would have to shoot wide open to capture every bit of light on the film. Although I thought maybe it would work, I never had made any test in that direction.

LOOK, June 25, 1946, Hy Peskin Photograph

LOOK, June 25, 1946, Hy Peskin Photograph

“The speed of the film in those days was 10. I was trying to be so careful with my film that in the entire fight I made only three pictures. But trying to shoot at the right time when the fighters were turned right to me, one guy was bleeding, that side of his face was showing and I tried to shoot at the punch, three times in the entire fight. I sent off the pictures to Eastman Kodak in Rochester, which would take several days for developing, and went back to my work at the Daily Mirror. A few days later, I went to Railway Express, which was only about three blocks down the street from the newspaper, got the box, ran to the window, tore open the box near the window to look at what I had. And my heart jumped out of my mouth: the three pictures each were fantastically clear, sharp, the blood, three of the greatest pictures of my life. All perfect, perfect, perfect. I didn’t go back up the street to the newspaper, I went down about a mile to Look magazine, to the editor that had been interested in me, brought him to the window when I got to his office and said, look here. When he saw reality, action in color, I was hired on the spot for roughly twice the money I ever made. I was no longer a newspaper photographer.”

Peskin went on to shoot hundreds of covers for This Week, Life, Collier’s, and more. Among his personal favorites was the Life cover and photo spread with Jack Kennedy and bride-to-be Jacqueline Bouvier. He shot a beautiful serene portrait of Joe DiMaggio, with “a soft smile that wasn’t Joe DiMaggio at all.” And he shot beautifully composed shots like Ben Hogan’s dramatic 1-iron shot on the 72nd hole of the 1950 U.S. Open in Merion, Pennsylvania, universally acclaimed as the greatest shot in the history of the sport. But what truly set Peskin apart from his peers was his combination of inventiveness and athleticism. Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times testified to his athletic style by writing in 1961:

LIFE, August 1, 1949, DiMaggio by Peskin

LIFE, August 1, 1949, DiMaggio by Peskin

You’ve seen Hy at these things before. He runs more laps than Vladimir Kuts and this is remarkable because Hy only stands about 5’7” and weighs about 195, most of it evenly distributed below the waist. Moreover, he ran his laps under full pack of two Leicas, one Rollei, sacks full of film, a telegraph from the editor, and a note from his wife telling him not to forget to pick up the roast. And Hy was doing all this on only three hot-dogs, a Pepsi and a (double) bag of peanuts. I think Hy’s 72-yard dash across the infield under full equipment was the finest I have ever seen….

What made Hy Peskin run? “Anticipation,” he told me. “Anticipation is the key word in the coverage of all sports. For example, one day I was shooting for Life magazine a game, maybe at Detroit, and I shot as usual when nobody was on base from the first-base side of the batter as he hit, close by. Often times I really endangered my life by edging closer to the baseline to shoot him when it is very possible for a batter to lash one out right at your nose. But I did it often. There was a particular batter, he hit, I shot, as he ran past me towards first I ran past him the opposite way, around home plate towards third base because there had been a runner on first base. As I ran to third, here comes the base runner from first, sliding into third. I got the picture but the fielder dropped the ball and it was rolling away. Now the base runner picked himself up and was running hard past me toward home plate. I wheeled around and ran as hard as I could behind him and got just in time, close enough to home plate, to shoot him sliding into home. I thought it was one of the greatest stunts I had ever pulled. Those pictures appeared in Life.”

Success followed success until the first Ali-Liston championship bout, in Miami in 1964. “I set up everything the previous day like photographers normally would with the lights overhead, camera down below. I tested everything, everything was great.… I came the next morning, the day of the fight and I went to the arena, like an idiot I didn’t recheck my camera–is it hooked right into the lights to be synchronized with my light? I simply took the camera which I had already checked the previous day, put the film in and proceeded to shoot the fight. I was shocked to learn later that I had virtually no pictures because the lens was not tied in any longer to my strobe lamps overhead. Somebody did something deliberately to put me out of business. So I was a strikeout at a very, very important event and I virtually disappeared from Sports Illustrated thereafter.”

Banquet of the Golden Plate, American Academy of Achievement, Dallas, 1965

Banquet of the Golden Plate, American Academy of Achievement, Dallas, 1965

By 1960 or so Hy had turned to entrepreneurial ventures such as the World Series of Sport Fishing with Ted Williams and his BIG idea, the American Academy of Achievement (AAA), formally launched in 1961. As Hy described the basic idea in later years, it was grandiloquently this: “To erect a Mount Olympian Gathering of the Gods of Achievement once a year to meet the greatest young achievers of the country.’” With the aid of his sons Evan, Ron, and Wayne and wife Blanche, the AAA attracted a motley crew of notables, celebrities, ambulatory wallets, strokable egos, and flashes in the pan. High-achieving high-school students would hobnob with the likes of Edward Teller, Brooke Shields, Wayne Newton, Roger Staubach, Jimmy Stewart, Helen Hayes, Stevie Wonder, Ben Feldman (“America’s No. 1 Salesman of 1965”), Col. Harland Sanders (Kentucky Fried Chicken), Helen Keller, Albert A. Morey (“Largest Insurance Brokerage”), Debby Boone, and Jack LaLanne.

Banquet of the Golden Plate, American Academy of Achievement, Dallas, 1965

Banquet of the Golden Plate, American Academy of Achievement, Dallas, 1965

After three publicly successful — but for Peskin’s finances disastrous — Golden Plate banquets in Monterey (“Negro haters and Jew haters”), San Diego, and Oceanside, by 1965 Hy Peskin had reached tether’s end. “A guy came and took away my car for not paying, and I was left on the streets of Oceanside, 20 miles from our home in Escondido, nearly 50 years old. No money, no more photo career because I had lost my assignments from Sports Illustrated. No money from the three Banquets of the Golden Plates that we had, standing ovations for me, but nobody realizing that I’m getting virtually nothing.” He moved the operation to Dallas, where he was able to stay afloat, but he was told there would be no further support from civic leaders.

“I decided to stay and to change my name to eliminate the image of the Jewish photographer from Brooklyn as the leader of the Academy. So I became the only man in the history of the world, the only father named after his children, I took my three sons’ middle names, made a new professional name, Brian Blaine Reynolds, and soon enough the program became successful. But I did leave Dallas, when I felt after a number of years they too wanted to get rid of me so they could steal the program. I packed up my family and went to Philadelphia and the support for the Academy grew and today it’s on a very solid foundation.”

By 1985 Reynolds’s youngest son Wayne took over managing the organization but before the decade was out the senior Reynolds filed lawsuits against his sons, charging they had colluded to take control of the AAA from him. A countersuit exposed Brian Reynolds to up to $3 million in liability. What to do? They were making him out to be crazy, “just because of this pajama thing.” Adriana Reynolds advised her husband to call Ray Charles, a recent AAA honoree. “Ray Charles came as a witness to the five-week-long trial,” Hy told me. “He came in the very last days or so, and in his own words told how he thought so much of me, how I was the Academy and so forth. The jury was very much taken with him and he saved my life. It was a $3 million lawsuit against me. Those people never collected a penny.” The jury instead awarded him damages of $800,000 (later reduced to $200,000), and another jury granted him a monthly pension of $10,000 from the Academy.

Hank Aaron, on deck at Yankee Stadium during 1957 World Series; Peskin

Hank Aaron, on deck at Yankee Stadium during 1957 World Series; Peskin

Wayne Reynolds moved the AAA offices to Washington a few years ago, adding world leaders to the roster of prominent Americans; today the organization is known as simply The Academy of Achievement and its annual event is the International Achievement Summit. In 1999 Wayne and his wife Catherine B. Reynolds were able to make her sizable foundation the principal sponsor of the Academy, which now matches international bigwigs with select graduate students rather than high schoolers.

On June 3, 2005 the Academy held its annual International Achievement Summit in New York at the American Airlines Theater on West 42nd Street. Filing in past gawkers were such high-powered figures as Sally Field, Denzel Washington, Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan, playwright Edward Albee, NBC’s Katie Couric, U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, novelist Tom Wolfe, and Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Also on June 3, Catherine Reynolds announced a $10 million gift to NYU for a program in social entrepreneurship. In recent years her foundation had granted $100 million to the Kennedy Center but had seen its offer of $38 million to the Smithsonian refused because the attached string seemed to the curators too binding: the construction of an exhibit honoring Americans who had made great individual achievements, from Abraham Lincoln to Oprah Winfrey. Wayne Reynolds commented to Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes: “I’ve never met people like this [the Smithsonian curators] who said individuals never mattered in history. My whole career, my whole life, Cathy’s whole life is based on: one person can make a difference in America.”

On that same June 3, 2005, Hy Peskin a.k.a. Brian Blaine Reynolds died in Herzliya, Israel. On the homepage of the Academy of Achievement’s website (http://www.achievement.org/) one may see the date of founding (1961) but nowhere is there a mention of the man who founded it, the individual who mattered.

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