Some things that happened never happened.

 

 

“Some things that happened never happened” is an oxymoron. I made it up. An oxymoron known as a Yogi Berra-ism (or, yogism), that is. The American neologism yogism (which I would spell with two i’s) is defined as follows:

a malapropism stating truth in a humorous manner, attributed to famous New York Yankee catcher, Yogi Berra. (“Deja vu all over again” or “it ain’t over til it’s over” are classic yogisms.) [Yogi Berra, for readers of this blog who are not American, was a professional baseball player who became an American folk hero based upon is inimitable personality and wit as well as his athletic accomplishments. (He was elected to The National Baseball Hall of Fame.)]

Shouldn’t it be spelled yogiism, or Yogi-ism?

I’m not entirely happy with this definition, which I found on the internet. Malapropism? Humorous? I don’t think Yogi Berra ever saw himself as a wit or jokester. True, he did often misspeak, but he did so to make a point in in his characteristic fashion. Yogisms, I would say, are closest to oxymorons. Saying what something is by stating what it is not.

 

 

 

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People often assert that stories are true when they are not, when they did not actually happen. I think this occurs because of vanity. It seems practically irresistible to be able to tell a good story that will hold others spellbound and perhaps impress them with the teller’s appeal as a raconteur.

Then, there’s the desire to make someone conform to a preconceived image: a noble person above reproach, someone easily made fun of. The teller is betting that his or her story will convince you of this. The story is their way of making someone look perhaps saintly or admirable or, on the contrary, ridiculous, at no “cost,” so to speak, to the teller, who is not likely to be held to account for a fabrication.

And, there is also a factor, often, of plain carelessness, forgetfulness, inattention to detail.

Many such stories are invented out of whole cloth. Or believed because someone else has averred them to be true.

 

 

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Some examples.

 

Baseball player Pee Wee Reese’s supposedly hugging Jackie Robinson before a hostile crowd in Cincinnati during Robinson’s first season in the Major Leagues has become the stuff of legend:

In 2005, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg helped unveil a monument outside the Brooklyn Cyclones’ home field depicting Hall of Famers (and former Brooklyn Dodgers) Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson with Reese’s arm around Robinson.

It was designed to commemorate a moment that occurred in Cincinnati, Ohio, on May 13, 1947, the first game of just the second road series during Robinson’s inaugural season, which saw him break the color barrier to become the first African-American major leaguer.

In the new Robinson biopic, 42, the scene is also prominently given the Hollywood treatment.

As the story goes, Cincinnati fans were giving Robinson a particularly tough time as the Dodgers took the field in the bottom of the first. In a show of support, Reese temporarily left his position at shortstop and traveled over to Robinson at first base and put his arm around the rookie, silencing the crowd, which was awed by the act of racial empathy by Reese, a popular All-Star from nearby Kentucky.

 

— “Did Reese really embrace Robinson in ’47?” (ESPN)

http://www.espn.com/blog/playbook/fandom/post/_/id/20917/did-reese-really-embrace-robinson-in-47

 

A heartwarming story, but, as writer Jonathan Eig has shown, convincingly, the incident didn’t happen (Jonathan Eig, Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season, pp. 127-129).

 

 

 

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Babe Ruth’s “called shot” (a homerun which was preceded by the batter, Ruth, pointing to the place in the stands where he would hit the next pitch) in the fifth inning of Game 3 of the 1932 World Series at Wrigley Field in Chicago. It probably didn’t happen as it was supposed to have. The best guess is that Ruth held up his fingers to show players on the opposing team, the Chicago Cubs, who were subjecting Ruth to taunts from the dugout, that the count was two strikes and that he had another strike coming. But to assert this is to be in danger oneself of making things up.

 

 

 

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There are similarities with another story that has become the stuff of American legend, George Washington chopping down a cherry tree in his boyhood.

Mason Locke Weems (1759-1825), usually referred to as Parson Weems, was an American book agent and author who wrote the first biography of George Washington immediately after his death. He was the source of some of the apocryphal stories about Washington. The tale of the cherry tree (“I cannot tell a lie, I did it with my little hatchet”) is included in the fifth edition of The Life of Washington (1809 imprint, originally published 1800), a bestseller that depicted Washington’s virtues and was intended to provide a morally instructive tale for the youth of the young nation.

Weems’s A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington was a biography written in this spirit, amplified by the florid, rollicksome style which was Weems’s trademark. According to this account, his subject was “… Washington, the hero, and the Demigod …” and at a level above that “… what he really was, ‘’the Jupiter Conservator,’ the friend and benefactor of men.” With this hyperbole, Weems elevated Washington to the Augustan level of the god Jupiter.

Among the exaggerated or invented anecdotes is that of the cherry tree, attributed by Weems to “… an aged lady, who was a distant relative, and, when a girl, spent much of her time in the family …” who referred to young George as “cousin.”

The following anecdote is a case in point. It is too valuable to be lost, and too true to be doubted; for it was communicated to me by the same excellent lady to whom I am indebted for the last.

“When George,” said she, “was about six years old, he was made the wealthy master of a hatchet! Of which, like most little boys, he was immoderately fond, and was constantly going about chopping everything that came in his way. One day, in the garden, where he often amused himself hacking his mother’s pea-sticks, he unluckily tried the edge of his hatchet on the body of a beautiful young English cherry-tree, which he barked so terribly, that I don’t believe the tree ever got the better of it. The next morning the old gentleman, finding out what had befallen his tree, which, by the by, was a great favourite, came into the house; and with much warmth asked for the mischievous author, declaring at the same time, that he would not have taken five guineas for his tree. Nobody could tell him anything about it. Presently George and his hatchet made their appearance. “George,” said his father, “do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry tree yonder in the garden? ” This was a tough question; and George staggered under it for a moment; but quickly recovered himself: and looking at his father, with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all-conquering truth, he bravely cried out, “I can’t tell a lie, Pa; you know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.” “Run to my arms, you dearest boy,” cried his father in transports, “run to my arms; glad am I, George, that you killed my tree; for you have paid me for it a thousand fold. Such an act of heroism in my son is more worth than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and their fruits of purest gold.”

It went on to be reprinted in the popular McGuffey Reader used by schoolchildren, making it part of the culture, causing Washington’s birthday to be celebrated with cherry dishes, with the cherry often claimed to be a favorite of his.

In 1896 Woodrow Wilson’s biography George Washington was published, calling it a fabrication, after which almost all historians of the period followed suit, even though the story was never denied by Washington’s relatives, notably Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis (1779-1852), whom Washington raised as his own daughter, and who spent her life preserving his memory and debunking false stories.

In spite of the speculation offered by some historians the story remains plausible and has not been proven or disproven.

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mason_Locke_Weems

 

Note that most scholars regard the story as pure invention, but we will never know for sure.

 

 

 

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Myths about the circumstances surrounding the composition of Mozart’s Requiem in D minor, K. 626. The myths were propagated by the play Amadeus and the film based upon the play, but they started long before that. (Nevertheless, the way the play and film play fast and loose with the facts and create stock characters, often nefarious or ludicrous, can be quite annoying.)

The myths include that Mozart and his wife Constanze were facing financial ruin when he was composing the requiem, down to their last ducat; that the composer Antonio Salieri played a role in commissioning and completing the Requiem (and perhaps in Mozart’s death generally); and so on.

 

 

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Here’s a story from my own family lore that is suspect. But, again, I’m not sure.

My mother’s brother enjoyed telling charming stories. He told one about my grandfather, Ralph E. Handy, and the family grocer, Mr. Wheeler.

My uncle’s family, it is known, had difficulty making ends meet during the Great Depression. My uncle told me that Mr. Wheeler, a local grocer, helped them to get by by giving them credit.

My grandfather died in 1947 in middle age. When his will was read, as the story, told by my uncle with relish, goes, the first item in it was (quoting roughly from my uncle’s recollection), “Before all other debts are paid, I want to make sure Mr. Wheeler is made whole.”

According to my uncle, Mr. Wheeler, when informed of this, said, rubbing his forehead, “My gosh. Imagine that. This restores my faith in humanity.”

From what I have heard about the character of my maternal grandfather, who died when I was an infant, my uncle’s story seemed credible. What a charming story, I thought. One of which our family can be proud. When the opportunity presented itself, I went to the probate court in Essex County, Massachusetts and looked up the will of my grandfather, which is on file there. I wanted to be able to quote his exact words.

I was surprised to find that there was nothing in the will about paying off debts to a Mr. Wheeler or any grocer. The will is short and perfunctory. It leaves his estate to his wife.

(My uncle also insisted that his uncle, the noted educator Anson B. Handy, was present at the funeral of his father, my maternal grandfather. There is a problem with the story: Anson B. Handy predeceased his brother Ralph Handy, my uncle’s father, by more than a year. I verified this through genealogical research, consulting death records, obituaries, and gravestones. When I pointed this out to my uncle, he vehemently insisted Anson had been at Ralph’s funeral. My uncle was in his late teens at the time.)

 

 

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Another story which has been told many times with relish by a relative of mine is that my two grandmothers used to argue over the dinner table during family gatherings (such as during holidays) over who had the most distinguished colonial ancestry.

In the story, the two grandmothers, who are portrayed as battle axes, would practically come to blows over which of them was a Mayflower descendant or had more Mayflower ancestors.

There are problems with the story, which I noticed right away. I came to disbelieve it even more after doing my own genealogical research.

One of my grandmothers was indeed very proud of her colonial heritage. Her ancestors on her father’s side went far back; her original ancestor came in 1635.

However, there was no Mayflower ancestry on her side. I doubt she would have claimed this.

My other grandmother, my mother’s mother, did not tend to be disputatious in the sense of acting haughty or boastful in general, and was never this way, to my knowledge, in claiming to be a blueblood. She did have Mayflower ancestry, but she may not have even been aware of it. Her great-great grandmother on her father’s side was a Mayflower descendant. Her husband, my mother’s father, did have several Mayflower ancestors, but while my grandmother may have been proud of this, they were not her ancestors. And, I never head her brag about her ancestry, let alone talk about it.

Also making the story unlikely, in view of my relative’s basing it upon personal recollections of family gatherings at which the relative was present, is the fact that my two grandmothers were rarely, hardly ever, in attendance at family functions at the same time.

 

 

 

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Apocryphal stories always have stock figures: the great composer harassed to death by a jealous rival who demanded he complete his own requiem mass; the dutiful little boy and future paragon of civic virtue who can’t tell his father a lie; the ballplayer raised in the South who shows brotherly love to a black teammate in pre Civil Rights days; the upright Yankee to whom a small debt he could easily overlook is forever binding, even beyond the grave; the proud, warring battle axes fighting over their claims to Mayflower ancestry.

They are all based upon real people made into stock figures — sometimes larger than life, sometimes ridiculous — into characters who are distortions of their actual selves and who do not conform to actuality.

 

 

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Apocryphal stories, Embellishment. Hard to resist.

Blame it on human nature.

 

 

— Roger W.  Smith

   June 2017

About Roger W. Smith

Roger W. Smith is a writer and independent scholar based in New York City. His experience includes freelance writing and editing, business writing, book reviewing, and the teaching of writing and literature as an adjunct professor. Mr. Smith's interests include personal essays and opinion pieces; American and world literature; culture, especially books and reading; current issues that involve social, moral, and philosophical views; and experiences of daily living from a ground level perspective. He also hosts a website devoted to the author Theodore Dreiser.
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