In the original draft of Monday's column about the Chicago firefighters' strike, I responded to Mayor Jane Byrne's threat to discharge all the strikers. I wrote:
"If you really fire everybody who has struck, you'll be the first big-city mayor in history to do it."
The moment I looked at the screen of my video display terminal and saw what I had written, warning bells went off in my head.
In this business, one quickly learns to be wary of statements that ascribe a superlative quality to any person or thing. When a writer alleges that somebody or something is the first, the last, the biggest, the smallest, the shortest or the longest, some reader is sure to put him in his place. The reader will say there was a bigger one or a smaller one in 1902 in Hot Coffee, Miss., and if you don't believe it, pal, just look it up.You'll find you were wrong and the reader was right.
So "the first big-city mayor in history" was immediately changed to "the first big-city mayor in memory," and that's the way it appeared in print.
Uppermost in my mind was the Boston police strike that catapulted Calvin Coolidge to national prominence. In that incident, everybody who struck wasn't fired, but I recalled that a few ringleaders had been fired, and so it occurred to me that possibly there had been some other strike by municipal employees somewhere in which all the strikers had been fired.
I wasn't going to step into that booby trap. "History" was changed to "memory."
Yesterday a letter arrived from a Chevy Chase reader who wrote, "Mayor Byrne might be the first in your memory, but not in mine. In the summer of 1919, the Boston police force struck and there was a night of store window breaking and looting. In the morning, Calvin Coolidge, who was the mayor of Boston, fired all the policemen and got the governor of Massachusetts to call out the National Guard to serve as police, and they did until a new police force could be hired and trained. If it hadn't been for that bold action, Calvin would never have been elected president of the U.S."
I have withheld the reader's name because our library indicates that his memory blew a gasket. He was just plain wrong.
In September of 1919, a group of Boston policemen obtained a union charter from the AFL, quite contrary to police department regulations. Police Commissioner Edwin U. Curtis suspended 19 of the union's leaders, whereupon about 75 percent of Boston's 1,500 policemen struck. For the next two nights, bands of hoodlums smashed windows and looted stores. Calvin Coolidge, who had previously been mayor of Northampton (not Boston), was by then governor of Massachusetts. Silent Cal called out the National Guard and restored order. When Curtis fired the 19 ringleaders, Samuel Gompers, president of the AFL, asked Coolidge to reinstate them. Coolidge responded with his memorable declaration, "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time."
It may be of some consolation to my Chevy Chase reader to know that I, too, remember many things that just aren't so. Example: I had a clear recollection of playing shortstop against a Cincinnati sandlot team that included Jesse Owens, and one day mentioned it in the column. When a reader suggested that I had probably confused Owens with De Hart Hubbard, I banged the palm of my hand into my forehead and said "Of course! How could I have been so stupid?" POSTSCRIPT
For the benefit of those who do not follow track and field news: Jesse Owens was the brilliant star of the "Hitler Olympics" in 1936. A dozen years earlier, De Hart Hubbard had become the first black American to win an Olympic gold medal (Paris, 1924). By the time I played against Hubbard's team in the early '30s, he was about eight years past his Olympic prime and I was only 20. Nevertheless, I did not throw him out once during the entire season, not even on routine grounders.
By the time the ball was in my glove, that sonofagun was on first base. Is it any wonder that 40 years later my memory confused him with Owens? Both men went down to first too fast to be recognized.
Incidentally, some record books spell Hubbard's first name "Dehart," some spell it "DeHart," and some spell it "De Hart." You will note that I have used a capital H and a space between De and Hart.
An old man's memory about things that happened yesterday isn't worth a nickel, but it can at times be pretty good on events of 40 years ago.
Besides, the Cincinnati Enquirer city desk searched its files for me and said, "We don't know what to advise you because we've used it all three ways, but mostly as 'De Hart,' with a capital H and a space."
That I remember, although I made the call as recently as 1 a.m. yesterday.