Semi-Private Baseball Experience

Oakland Coliseum, April 19, 2022.

Ballpark attendance isn’t one of the pressing issues of our times. Yet, as a fan who has always watched the numbers — I think the last time the Chicago Cubs drew less than 1 million fans, which used to be some kind of yardstick of, well, something, was 1966, and it made an impression — the story of Major League Baseball in Oakland is perversely fascinating. I won’t go into all the reasons right now the home team, the Athletics, are such a lousy draw. But a lousy draw they are. Tuesday night games are especially lightly attended, and given recent trends, I figured that maybe 5,000 people would show up for the unmesmerizing non-spectacle of the A’s playing the recently very dreadful Baltimore Orioles. But my expectations had been set a little too high. The reported attendance was 3,748, perhaps the smallest crowd I’ve been a part of in more than 40 years of attending games at the Coliseum. Those who made it to the ballpark did get to spread out and enjoy a beautiful evening, pictured above, and see the home team win, if that’s what they were hoping for.

Whitman Family, Meet Misses Stein and Toklas

Whitman Family Marker, Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland.

One afternoon not too long ago — sometime earlier this century, in any case — I found myself in Oakland, close to Piedmont Avenue, with nothing more on my to-do list for the day. I decided to take a walk up to Mountain View Cemetery. As always, in whatever cemetery I’m strolling through, I was captivated by the stories some grave markers suggest and took pictures of monuments that caught my eye.

What grabbed me about the marker above? Well, the carefully rough-cut form, probably. The names, too: a family group — father, mother, and son, and the son’s imposing, formal name: Crosby Church Whitman. Also curious, to me: the detail related on the stone that the mother and son both died in Paris, with the younger Whitman dying in 1916, during World War I, but before the United States entered the war. What was the story there?

Much later, during hours when I should have been getting some outside air in my lungs, I looked up “Crosby Church Whitman” on our universal distributed reference library. One thing led to another, and soon the Whitmans were rubbing elbows with Gertrude Stein and Alice Babette Toklas.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. To start with the old Whitmans:

Bernard Crosby Whitman is the subject of a brief entry in the 1904 “National Cyclopedia of American Biography” says he was born in Massachusetts in 1827. A newspaper clipping suggests his original name was and that he was granted legal permission to change it in 1842). He graduated from Harvard in 1846, studied law and was admitted to the bar in Maine in 1849. Then he heard about what was happening in California and came west, arriving in San Francisco in 1850. Among other activities of note, he was a Whig Party member of the state Assembly for one term and ran as a Know Nothing — nativist, exclusionary — candidate for Congress in 1856.

Mary Elizabeth Church was born in Albion, Michigan, in 1842. She was apparently brought to California as a child, and her hometown when she married Bernard was Rough and Ready, a Gold Rush settlement in Nevada County; newspaper accounts, in the Daily Alta California and Sacramento Union, reported the wedding ceremony took place in Nevada Clounty on July 14, 1858. (Take note of the dates and the ages they imply: If accurate, Bernard was 15 years Mary Elizabeth’s senior; she would have been 16 years old when she married a man twice her age. )

Their son, Crosby Church Whitman, was born in Benicia — in Solano County, northeast of San Francisco, and one of California’s early capitals — in 1864. He was sent east to prep school, graduated from Harvard in 1886 and then pursued a medical education in France and Germany. He practiced for a while at Johns Hopkins around the turn of the 20th century, then returned to France, where he resided and practiced medicine the rest of his life.

Bernard Whitman moved to Virginia City, Nevada, in 1864, the same year Crosby was born. The Comstock Lode was in full swing; Bernard is said to have taken “a prominent part in most of the litigation” related to the mines there. He was named to the Nevada Supreme Court and served a year as chief justice in the mid-1870s before moving to San Francisco, where he practiced law until his death from “an apoplectic stroke” in August 1885. His estate was reported to be worth about $10,000 — not nearly a fortune, but enough for his survivors to get by on.

Presumably, Bernard was buried at Mountain View immediately after his death. But what about his wife and son, who according to the marker died in Paris much later?

Crosby Church Whitman turns up in newspaper accounts around 1910 as one of the founding physicians of the American Hospital in Neuilly, just outside Paris. When World War I broke out in 1914, he has asked to organize an “ambulance,” or field hospital, to help treat the masses of French and British soldiers wounded in the fight to stop the German advance on the capital.

Here’s how a 1920 volume, “Memoirs of the Harvard Dead in the War Against Germany,” described Dr. Whitman’s service, carried out under the auspices of the French Red Cross:

“With unfailing courtesy to all whom he met, and the many qualities which have endeared him to his friends, he devoted himself to his new duties, soothing sufferers in words as well as by professional skill, encouraging the despondent, and frequently providing at his personal expense the best apparatus for unfortunate amputated men when the time came for them to leave the ambulance. In the multiplicity of details, many annoyances were inevitable; but he always kept his cheerful serenity; it was said that a mere glance at his countenance was enough to make a wounded man feel sure that he was on the road to recovery.”

Crosby Whitman later organized a second field hospital. By the beginning of 1916, the Harvard account says, the sheer volume of work had overwhelmed him: “On the advice of his associates, he interrupted his work, as he supposed, for a few days; but his health failed rapidly. He passed away in his sleep, at his own residence in Paris, in the presence of his mother, the household, and the attending physicians. ” The consular record of his death, on March 28, 1916, lists the cause as “congestion of the brain.”

Mary Elizabeth Whitman had lived with her son at 20 Rue de Lübeck, in the 16th Arrondissement on the north bank of the Seine — about halfway between the Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower — for years before his passing. And she stayed right there until her death in 1932, at age 90. Her death record lists the cause as “senility.”

How did the Whitmans make their way, after death, back to a cemetery in Oakland?

In Crosby Whitman’s case, the answer is that he didn’t. He was cremated and interred at the Suresnes American Cemetery, on the western outskirts of Paris.

And his mother? Well, it’s not quite clear to me. Yet. The record of her death shows she was cremated and her remains held, at least temporarily, at the American Cathedral in Paris. I’ve contacted people there to see whether there are any records of what happened after that.

So, that grave in Mountain View is the final resting place of one Whitman, and possibly two. The third member of the family remains in France.

What does any of that have to do with Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas? Well, not a lot. But here’s something:

Looking for information on the Whitmans on Ancestry.com, among the resources I came across were passport applications made at the U.S. Embassy in Paris. The Whitmans applied for passports in December 1914. After Dr. Whitman explained his protracted absence from the United States, the passports were approved on March 25, 1915.

Crosby Whitman’s application is listed first in the passport file, followed by his mother’s. Turning to the very next page after Mary Elizabeth Whitman, I found this:

And on the very next page after that is this:

Alice B. Toklas passport approval, March 25, 1915.

Of course, it’s just a coincidence . There’s nothing to suggest that, except for the accident of their simultaneous passport approvals, the Whitmans ever crossed paths with Stein and Toklas, who lived during these years about four kilometers away at 27 Rue de Fleurus, just outside the Luxembourg Gardens.

Long after the Whitmans passed away, and immediately after another World War, Gertrude Stein fell ill and was diagnosed with cancer. As she lay dying in the American Hospital, which Crosby Whitman had helped found decades earlier, Toklas kept watch by her bedside.

Toklas wrote later:

“I sat next next to her, and she said to me early in the afternoon, ‘What is the answer?’ I was silent. ‘In that case,’ she said, ‘what is the question?’ ”

Oakland’s Homicide Rate vs. Chicago’s

So here I am on vacation. I slept late; or more accurately, went back to bed after my spouse/best friend went off to work. I got up, microwaved the early-morning coffee, and sat down at the computer.

I happened across a headline about a fatal shooting over the weekend in Oakland — the city’s 52nd homicide this year. That brought to mind a conversation I had with a friend last week during which I rashly said that though Chicago has gotten lots of media attention this year over its shocking wave of killings, Oakland’s rate was still actually many times that of Chicago. Yes — I said “many times.” But doing the arithmetic in my head as I spoke, I corrected myself — Oakland’s rate is higher than Chicago’s, though not “many times.”

Seeing the story about the weekend murder, I decided to quickly run the numbers to see whether my assertion was true. (Reminder for the next time this impulse hits me: When I run the numbers, it’s never “quickly.”)

What I’ve done in each case is to “annualize” the number of homicides by taking the current toll, dividing by 9 to get a monthly average, then multiplying the result by 12 to project a 2016 total based on that monthly total. To get a rate of homicides per 100,000 population, I divided the projected 2016 totals by the city population — or actually, by the number of 100,000s in each city’s population. Oakland’s population is currently estimated at about 420,000 (divisor used in my arithmetic=4.2) and Chicago’s is 2,720,000 (divisor=27.2).

So, as of Monday, September 26, with 52 homicides reported so far in Oakland and 545 reported in Chicago, here are the annualized rates:

Oakland’s 2016 homicide rate per 100,000 residents: 16.39
Chicago’s 2016 homicide rate per 100,000 residents: 26.72

Regard those as rough (but good ballpark) numbers. Each includes a few “justifiable” killings — those committed in self-defense, for instance — that the FBI won’t count in its annual tally of homicides and cases of non-negligent manslaughter.

How much have things changed in the last few years?

In 2012, Oakland experienced a spike in homicides: 127, excluding a handful of killings that were ruled to be justifiable. Chicago had a total of 500 homicides, excluding a half-dozen “justifiable” killings. Using the same method, here are the rates:

Oakland: 31.75
Chicago: 18.45

The FBI calculated the national homicide rate in 2012 at 4.7 per 100,000 population. Chicago’s number was four times the national rate; Oakland’s was more than seven times the national rate.

The limited takeaways from the Oakland vs. Chicago rates:

Oakland’s decline is historic, in a sense: Barring a sudden surge in killings, the city is headed to its lowest annual homicide toll since 1999, when 60 were recorded, and would be the second lowest since 1985, which is as far back as the FBI numbers go. (Yes, I could hunt down the earlier numbers and perhaps will on some future vacation or workday.)

One also observes that 1999 was at the height of the dot-com boom, when employment was high and the regional economy was generally robust. Right now, we’re in the midst of an even bigger boom — characterized by home prices that are out of reach for many. Coincidence or correlation?

Chicago’s murder surge is also historic in a sense, with the projected number representing about a 50 percent increase in homicides in one calendar year. Though the overall total is still far below the terrible years of the early ’90s, when the city’s homicide toll topped 900 in 1991, 1992 and 1994, the city hasn’t seen anything like that year-over-year jump in the past 30 years (and maybe ever).

An American Coot in Oakland (with Very Large Greenish Feet)

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An American coot (Fulica americana) on the rocks next to the Oakland ferry terminal last week. I took the picture (through a window) for one reason: While these coots are omnipresent, cruising the local waterways, I have never seen one out of the water and had no idea what huge, strange feet they have: big, greenish things with prominent claws on the end of each toe. (click on the image for a bigger version and a better view of the coot feet in their full bipedal grandeur).

West Oakland Roadside Attraction

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Here’s a set of pictures that’s been sitting on my hard drive for a while. Last fall, some creative folks–artists and performers and super-capable do-it-yourselfers–created a sort of carnival on a vacant lot in West Oakland. I had heard about it from a reporter of ours who did a little story on it, then Kate spotted a piece about it in one of the local papers. So late one afternoon in November, we drove over there–10 or 15 minutes from home–to see what was up.

The attraction was called Peralta Junction, and involved a sideshow, a calliope, a life-size version of the game Mouse Trap (a performance that happened well after sunset, and my pictures didn’t turn out well), and local artisans selling a range of old-timey clothing and other modern-antique wares. It was really fun.

Here’s the slideshow, below, mostly featuring the guy who did the sideshow act. He hammered a butter knife into one of his nostrils. He passed his body through a tennis racket. He lay on a bed of nails while a second bed of nails was placed on his chest and someone from the crowd stood on it. I don’t know the performer’s name and wish I did–it was a funny and thoroughly engaging show.

Annals of Public-Education Community Outreach

A friend shared this message in which an Oakland public school–a flatlands school with a largely poor and minority population–is allegedly trying to communicate an important event to students’ families. I’m at a loss to understand what the people who put this out might have been thinking. Maybe that they are communicating to a bunch of artificial speech machines who will now what the heck they are talking about even if no human can. I especially like the time advertised for the “Community. Meetandgreet”: April 30, 2013, from “Eight Thousand Ten-Hundred until Nine Thousand Ten-Hundred.”
Did anyone listen to this machine-generated message before they robocalled families with it? Did anyone consider having a human being record a message that might have been a little more personal, not to mention a whole lot more intelligible? Did anyone wonder how this would sound to the majority of school parents who are primarily Spanish speakers (or maybe they got their own Spanish-language machine voice).
It’s hard to believe that this kind of pseudo-communication would be found acceptable at an affluent school where parents demand administrators tell them what’s happening at the school.

Crime Statistics, Lives Lost

A little earlier this month, I wrote something about being preoccupied by a small database project on Oakland’s homicides from last year. I should use the word “small” advisedly. Even though homicides represent a small slice of Oakland’s overall crime for 2012–the 500 or so shootings, the 2,200 other assaults, the 214 rapes, the 4,126 robberies, the 12,549 burglaries, the 7,020 stolen vehicles, the 6,006 larcenies–violent death casts a uniquely dark shadow across a community and robs it of any sense of security.

That’s the abstract level. On a more personal level, I wanted to gather as much information as I could on who had died, how they had died, and the aftermath of the deaths. That meant going from the Oakland Police Department’s often incomplete daily spreadsheets, which note times and locations of reported homicides, to media accounts that have the identities of victims. This is far from a novel project, unfortunately; the Oakland Tribune has been doing profiles on all the city’s homicide victims for the last several years (in fact, when I hit a dead end on finding names in several of these case, the Oakland police suggested we check the Trib’s year-end wrap-up, which had yet to be published). Back in the mid-90s, I edited a long series of stories at The San Francisco Examiner in which we tried to do a personal profile of every San Francisco homicide victim for a calendar year (we had reporters chasing after homicide investigators for details in more than 100 cases, I think; I was even less popular than usual among the reporters). Many news organizations have undertaken similar enterprises. The common thread in all of these projects, I think, is an attempt to humanize the people lost in the statistics.

As I wrote earlier, one pattern that emerged pretty early looking at all these cases was how relatively seldom anyone was arrested in the killing (at KQED News, we did a story last week that took a quick look at the most obvious reasons for the low arrest rate: lack of police resources, an underfunded crime lab, and, most important, the fact many people in the neighborhoods suffering the most from the plague of violence simply don’t trust the police).

For that story, we turned my homicide database into a map (below). You can click on the dots for the basic details of every death. Red dots show homicides that have not yet been solved. Green dots show cases that have been “cleared”–which means someone’s been arrested and charged. Yellow dots are cases ruled to be justifiable homicide. The single blue dot is for an officer-involved shooting also ruled to be justifiable homicide.

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A Month-Plus of Oakland Violence

On Super Bowl Sunday, there was a shooting in the 3300 block of Adeline Street in West Oakland. What made it stand out from the background of shootings in the city was the toll: seven reported wounded. So that afternoon, I put together a map and list of the reported shootings over the past week. That spate of violence was enough for Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan to call a press conference, promise to redouble the department’s efforts to fight crime, and to appeal to the public to report shootings and illegal guns to police.

There’s little evidence that the pace of the shootings has slackened since then. The toll for the past month, going back to January 29, is 14 dead and 29 wounded (one of the killings was a stabbing; one of those wounded was a man shot by police after a reported robbery).

But that toll minimizes the frequency of firearms incidents in the city. From Feb. 1 through today, the Oakland police report 45 incidents of “assault with a firearms on a person,” 41 incidents of shooting at dwellings or vehicles (either inhabited or uninhabited), 94 robberies involving firearms, seven cases of willfully discharging a firearm in a negligent manner, 14 cases of exhibiting firearms during the commission of another crime, two cases of carjacking with a gun (there are a few incidents in the OPD database listed under more than one of these categories).

An updated map is below. Each placemarker includes the available details on the incidents reported (I’ve limited the maps to homicides, reported shootings of people, and other incidents in which guns were apparently fired).

One pattern in the map: It’s striking to see how few shootings occur above (east or north of) Interstate 580. If there’s a geographic boundary to shootings that seems to hold for most of the city, that’s it.


View A Month of Oakland Violence in a larger map

Friday Night Ferry (and Train)

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If the world of intermodal transportation entrances you–and few among us can resist the charms of cargo containers on ship, rail, and truck–then the area around the port of Oakland is for you. Upon disembarking from the ferry at Jack London Square on Friday night, we encountered a freight train stopped at the corner of Second and Clay streets. The crossing gates were down, but the train was at a dead stop, so it was safe to cross. Picture-taking ensued. After five minutes or so, the locomotive horn sounded, and the freight began to roll. Amazing to contemplate the power and energy required to get so much weight moving in such short order. One minor drama: As the train rolled across the intersection, a pedestrian decided to run across the street in front of it (see if you can spot that moment in the slide show below). It wasn’t really a close call, but you kind of wonder what (beyond pure ignorance of the consequences of stumbling and falling) would prompt somebody to try that.

Winter While We’re Not Looking

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It’s raining tonight here in Berkeley. It rained a liittle here on Friday, too, and some more a few days before that. Except for the fact the rain has only added up to a large thimbleful so far, it’s almost like a real winter has snuck in to Northern California. A couple more little storms might shuffle through this week, but the forecasters seem to be competing with each other to display the most pronounced lack of enthusiasm about the prospects for any appreciable rain falling. One can understand why they’re a little out of sorts. February is a time when storms have made history in California, when meteorology is a matter of life and death. This year, the weather scientists here are keeping their eyes peeled for computer models that might portend a tenth of an inch of rain.

But we had a beautiful day waiting for this evening’s rain to move in. Low cumulus type clouds beating their way to the east and in the spaces between them you could see high clouds and condensation trails. Kate, Thom and I went to Wheeler Hall at UC Berkeley to see storyteller/country picker David Holt. Afterward, we drove down to Oakland’s Pill Hill neighborhood for lunch (non-East Bay types: Pill Hill is the site of hospitals and medical centers, thus the name). On the way down Telegraph I looked up through the roof window and thought it would make a swell cellphone camera shot. So that’s where that picture up there came from. (It was processed in an iPhone app called Instagram, so the contrast is much higher than the original scene, which was shot in color). I did not even notice the bird when I shot the picture, and even if I had I could never have placed it so nicely at the convergence of those two contrails on the right. (No Photoshopping here–unlike this guy.)

And the picture below is from yesterday. I wrote a little something last week about the profusion of blossoms in these parts, winter or no winter. Here’s more evidence:

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