Bill Stern, the Colgate shave cream man, is On the Air

A radio spot from long ago sticks in the mind

This line began the singing commercial introducing the regular Friday-evening 15-minute AM radio broadcast in the 1940s which I heard in the American midwest while quite young. It goes on to promise that Bill will tell you tales of sports heroes, the inside dope he really knows. I was never very interested in sports heros and their selfish, mindless exploits, but Bill made the human drama fascinating, so I rarely missed a broadcast. I cannot now recall a single story, though the memory of their character is indelible, but the jingle will never go away. Such is the power of advertising. It is strange that this effective hook is no longer appreciated by today's hucksters.

Bill had his heart set on a career in professional baseball, and he was pretty good, but lost a leg in an accident when a young man, ending this dream. He entered the burgeoning world of sports reporting as an announcer and writer, making a name for himself talking about the sports personalities rather than being one himself. His sports, of course, were the mass entertainments beloved of American youth and gamblers--baseball, football and boxing. Basketball was still a high-school sport, and ice hockey was still Canadian. Soccer was unknown, rowing and other more or less individual sports forgotten. Olympic sports were rare chauvinistic interludes. The big three sports attracted the enthusiasm of youth, who worshipped its 'heroes,' and also the attentions of organized crime, the invariable accomplice of American gambling. The dark side never appeared on the radio or in newspapers (as it still does not) except when some egregious scandal took place.

Since I cannot remember any of Bill's stories, I shall make one up as an example. Sluggin' Sam Grady drops the ball unaccountably several times one afternoon in a game with the underdog Panthers, scoring two errors for his team and two runs for the Panthers, giving them the game 7 to 6. After the game, his irate teammates find an opened telegram in his locker from an unstated member of the Chicago mob offering him $1000 to throw the game, an advance on a previous offer made to him personally by a Mr Parducci. Sluggin' Sam is expelled from the team, reviled in the papers, and four days later is found floating face-down in the Sanitary Canal. Bill now softly reveals that Sam was a total illiterate, unable to read a word, and ashamed of the fact, which he obsessively hid. As he changed for the game, a messenger brought a telegram to the locker room. Sam's mother was grievously ill in a hospital back in Chicago, and the telegram seemed to announce that her struggle was over, but of course he could not read it. He stumbled onto the field, grief-stricken, and played poorly. Shamed and rejected, he learned during the furore that the telegram had been from the mob, not the hospital. Relieved and cheered by this, he returned to Chicago only to find that his mother, on hearing of his disgrace, had died of the shock. Blind with rage, he seeks revenge, threatening to reveal who attempted the fix, but only catches lead poisoning, and ends up in the water.

Other radio personalities copied this O. Henry-like type of story with a twist in the tail that Bill Stern did so well, but never acknowledged the debt. He made stories that otherwise would have been commonplace and dull brightly interesting by adding deeper, explanatory facts that even made them attractive to me. This has a remarkable parallel in the view that 'scientific' explanations of beauty in nature somehow detract from the pleasure. This erroneous view is so far wrong that, in fact, much of natural beauty is hidden from those who are not equipped to appreciate it, as Mozart is from a dog. A magnificent illustration of the powers of reason to improve appreciation of nature is the remarkable book of the Dutch scientist M. Minnaert of the University of Utrecht, Light & Colour In The Open Air (London: G. Bell & Sons, 1940, English translation; reprinted New York: Dover, 1954, reissued by Bell, 1959). This unique work is a gateway to a much deeper and more pleasurable appreciation of the universe. I hope it remains available to the general reader, since there has been nothing else remotely like it.

As a simple and humble example, consider the large drops of a very brief shower that fall on a level area of dry sand. Each drop creates a dark circle on the sand. Why is this? The sand does not change colour, and the water is colourless and transparent. Minnaert tells us: "The water penetrates every interstice between the grains of sand. A ray of light, which otherwise would have been scattered by the topmost layers, can now penetrate much deeper before being sent back to our eye; and is almost entirely absorbed over this longer path." It is not so much the explanation itself, but the intellectual activity of searching for an answer that is rewarding, making one aware of the great power of modern scientific reasoning.

Our eyes are sensitive only to a narrow band of wavelengths centred on 500 nm (green). Glow-worms emit light in this region. Why is this band of wavelengths the only one used for vision in nature? Do glow-worms emit their light so we can see it? Well, glow-worms are only attracting mates, not humans. This band of wavelengths turns out to be the only band to which water is transparent. For most electromagnetic radiation, water is strongly opaque. Only the narrow band surrounding 500 nm can get through. We see water so wonderfully clear and limpid because our eyes are descended from eyes that were made to see through water. Indeed, most of the parts of the eye are still bathed in something like water, behind the corneal window.

Nature is full of tricks, because appearance is merely illusion, and one must know the inside dope to make sense of it, as Bill Stern did with sports heroes.

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Composed by J. B. Calvert
Created 24 March 2000
Last revised 17 April 2000