Day By Day

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

This Day In History

Today is "Checkers Day" [alternatively known as "Dog in Politics Day"]. The reference is to Richard Nixon and his famous "Checkers" speech. Back in 1952 when Nixon was being considered for Vice President political opponents charged that he had taken an illegal gift of several thousand dollars. Nixon struck back by going on TV to specifically refute the allegations. He closed his appearance by noting that there was one exception: his daughters had been given a dog, "Checkers", as a gift and they were going to keep it no matter what. The audience ate it up and Nixon, for perhaps the last time in his life, emerged as a sympathetic character.

On this day in 1779 a seven-ship American squadron commanded by John Paul Jones, commanding from the deck of Bom Homme Richard, defeat and capture the British warship Serapis. It was during this battle that Jones, when asked by the British commander if he wished to surrender, issued his famous statement "I have not yet begun to fight". With his own ship sinking under him, Jones grappled with the British ship, immobilizing it while other ships in the squadron fired on both combatants. Realizing he could not escape, the British commander surrendered and Jones took possession of the Serapis while his own ship was scuttled. This was a minor confrontation, actually a diversion from the major battle shaping up between British and French fleets, but reports of the victory made Jones a popular hero in America and France. The Brits considered him to be a pirate.

On this day in 1806 the Lewis and Clark expedition returns to St. Louis after three years exploring the northwest. The "Corps of Discovery", headed by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, had been sent westward by President Thomas Jefferson to find out just what was in that vast Louisiana territory he had just purchased and most importantly to find a water route to the Pacific. Needless to say they failed to find one. This was not the first trans-continental journey. Cabeza de Vaca and four companions had traversed the continent from Florida to California in 1536, and Sir Alexander Mackensie had explored the breadth of Canada in 1793. Nor was the Lewis and Clark expedition particularly fruitful. They did catalogue a number of plants and animals, so naturalists gained some information, and they did enjoy good relations with some of the Indian peoples they encountered, but as many historians have noted the expedition did not lead to anything of importance. There was no followup. The account of the expedition is, however, a rousing good story that appeals to the popular imagination and has been told and retold time and again, and that is important because it tells us something about how Americans see their national history.

And on this day in 1845 a group of young men led by New York fireman and "town ball" enthusiast, Alexander Joy Cartwright, formed a club called the "Knickerbockers", rented the "Elysian Fields" in Hoboken, New Jersey on which to play, and adopted formal rules for playing a game they called "base ball".

And on this day in 1912 Mack Sennett, the original "King of Comedy", issued his first "Keystone Kops" film. Sennett is largely forgotten today, but he was an amazing figure. He started in vaudeville as a singer, dancer, and clown, moved to Hollywood and did odd jobs for the early studios, then talked some money men into backing him and established a small studio and began churning our short comedy films. He had a talent for taking obscure talents and turning them into major stars. Among the stars who got their start with Sennett were Mabel Normand, Ben Turpin, Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, Bing Crosby, and W. C. Fields. Through the twenties Sennett moved from success to success, then in the 1930s public tastes changed and he didn't. After producing several flops his backers abandoned him and by 1933 he was bankrupt. In 1938, after producing more than a thousand films he retired at age 55 and finished out his days in relative obscurity. Great Hollywood story, isn't it?

And on this day in 1939 the Dodgers, led by Cookie Lavagetto who went 6 for 6, the Dodgers cranked out 27 hits and smashed the hapless Phillies 22-4.

On this day in 1990 Saddam Hussein pledges to "destroy Israel". That didn't work out quite the way he expected.