September 23, 2020

Crossing Abbey Road Again — Baseball, Beatles, RBG, and Nabokov

By Stuart Mitchner

A year ago I was writing about baseball and the Beatles on the 50th anniversary of Abbey Road and the St. Louis Cardinals’ four-game playoff-clinching sweep of their arch rivals, the Chicago Cubs. At the time I didn’t know about the photograph staged to publicize the ill-fated June 2020 London series between the Cubs and the Cardinals.   

However disappointed fans may have been when the event was canceled by the pandemic, the image of Cubs outfielder Kris Bryant and first baseman Anthony Rizzo and Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and catcher Yadier Molina crossing Abbey Road helps make up for it. Here are four ballplayers reenacting in full uniform the zebra crossing cover shot seen round the world, each player replicating the posture, style, and stride of a Beatle — Bryant subbing for George, Rizzo for barefoot Paul (his slightly uplifted lead foot similarly positioned at the exact edge of the identical zebra stripe), Goldschmidt for Ringo, and Molina for John, whose song “Come Together” provided the tagline for both teams’ Facebook postings.

Just imagining what went on behind the scenes brings a smile. Did Rizzo volunteer to go shoeless, or did the organizer of the shoot explain the situation by quoting McCartney, who lived around the corner at the time: “It was a really nice hot day and I didn’t feel like wearing shoes, so I went around to the photo session and showed me bare feet.” Or was there a squabble among the players about which Beatle each would be subbing for? Or perhaps some back and forth between the fiery Molina and the outspoken Bryant, who once defamed the city of St. Louis as “boring.” And maybe a debate about airbrushing the elaborate tattoo on Molina’s right arm, settled with a line from the theme song of the shoot: “One thing I tell you is you got to be free.”

Deals and Steals

It’s worth noting that the legendary Cardinals-Cubs rivalry, the second-most storied in baseball, made them the logical choice to follow 2019’s Red Sox-Yankees London match-up, which had been billed as “an intense and historic rivalry well over a century in the making.”

Both feuds were founded on infamously one-sided deals: the Red Sox “Curse of the Bambino” sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920 and the trade that brought Lou Brock (1939-2020) from Chicago to St. Louis in 1964, a move that helped lift the Cardinals to a world championship the same year. When Brock died earlier this month, the New York Times obituary (“Baseball Hall of Famer Known for Stealing Bases”) quoted him on bravado: “You know before you steal a base that you’ve got nine guys out there in different uniforms. You’re alone in a sea of enemies. The only way you can hold your own is by arrogance, the ability to stand before the crowd.”

The reference to “the crowd” has unhappy resonance in this Covid-mangled season where fans have been replaced by cardboard cut-outs and canned cheering. Following the Cardinals this year has been a challenge, the excitement muted, distant, hard to grasp, with the team missing two weeks’ worth of games due to players testing positive for the virus. Even though chances for a playoff spot look promising, it feels a long way from this time last year when I compared the euphoria of winning vicariously on the field to listening to the second side of Abbey Road (“Fifty Years on Abbey Road: ‘The Love You Take Is Equal to the Love You Make’”).

Handshakes and Smiles

Among last week’s rare feel-good moments was watching hockey players line up for handshakes after the overtime victory that sent Tampa Bay past the Islanders to the Stanley Cup finals. Surely one of the most admirable traditions in sports is the ceremony wherein players who were hammering each other like warriors in mortal combat take off the gloves to shake hands, maybe give a hug, a shoulder pat, even a smile or a look that says “Win or lose, we’re all in this together.”

In case you haven’t guessed, I’m looking for some positives in the shadow of last week’s news cycle, led by the diminutive, indomitable 87-year-old warrior who died on Friday.

Nabokov’s Best Reward

In a New York Times Op Ed piece from 2016 reprinted over the weekend, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933-2020) repeats her mother-in-law’s wedding day advice (“In every good marriage, it helps sometimes to be a little deaf”) and credits her professor of European literature at Cornell, Vladimir Nabokov, with changing “the way I read and the way I write. Words could paint pictures, I learned from him. Choosing the right word, and the right word order, he illustrated, could make an enormous difference in conveying an image or an idea.”

When the author of Pale Fire and
Lolita was asked in a 1967 Paris Review interview what he learned from his classes at Cornell, he replied, “My best reward comes from those former students of mine who ten or fifteen years later write to me to say that they now understand what I wanted of them when I taught them to visualize Emma Bovary’s mistranslated hairdo or the arrangement of rooms in the Samsa household [in Kafka’s Metamorphosis] or the two homosexuals in Anna Karenina.”

Whatever Justice Ginsberg might have learned from Nabokov’s reading of a mistranslated hairdo, there’s a touch of his art in the metaphor she’s being remembered for, from her dissent in Shelby County v. Holder, the case that weakened the 1965 Voting Rights Act: “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

Abbey Road 24/7

While the montage of some 60 celebrities, living and dead, featured on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band probably made a deeper impression on the consciousness of the culture, it was a fantasy. Not so the cover of Abbey Road. Whether or not the photo shoot was Photoshopped, the locale shown in the Cubs-Cardinals photograph is real; it’s still there; it can be visited, and so it is, day after day, year after year, by real people of all ages from all around the real world, there to walk in the footsteps of the Beatles and take pictures of themselves doing it. If you prefer the comfort and economy of a virtual visit, you can access the Abbey Road crossing, day or night, 24/7, courtesy of EMI’s webcam (