For the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500, BackStory goes into overdrive with a show all about speed in America. How fast — and slow — has life moved in different eras? And how has the pace of social change, well, changed over time? Join Brian, Ed and Peter as they head out to the racetrack, the ballpark and the trading floor … and hustle from the halls of the Supreme Court to the speedy courtrooms of Reno, Nev. — once the divorce capital of America.
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BRIAN: This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh. When the New York World sent journalist Nellie Bly to race across the globe in 1889, the competition noticed. The publisher of Cosmopolitan magazine summoned his own, quote, “girl reporter” and said, “If at all possible, I would like you to undertake this trip faster than anyone has ever done it before in history. She was not at all amused.”
The objective? To go around the world, like in that Jules Verne novel, in 80 days or less. Today on BackStory, tales of speed in American history, from the brawl over whether baseball is too boring, to the pace of social change in the civil rights era.
MALE SPEAKER: Some people all this is happening too fast, too many changes too quickly. And so somebody who’s in that situation, they want their rights now.
BRIAN: Coming up on BackStory, the speediest hour of history we’ve ever brought you. Don’t rush off.
MALE SPEAKER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
MALE SPEAKER: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory, with the American Backstory hosts.
BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh.
ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. Peter Onuf is away this week. For a while now, financial market watchers have been involved in a debate about how fast is too fast. This was underscored in a book called Flash Boys by journalist Michael Lewis. Here’s Lewis on 60 Minutes last summer, explaining what happens in the milliseconds after he clicks “buy” on shares of, say, Microsoft.
MICHAEL LEWIS: There are waiting high frequency traders who have algorithms that are able to determine what it is I want to do. They then need to beat me to the other exchanges to buy the Microsoft I want to buy and sell it back to me at a higher price.
ED: And they’re doing that?
MICHAEL LEWIS: They’re doing that. But they not only need to beat me, they need to beat each other.
ED: Lewis and a number of other commentators say that the new computer technologies that enable this high frequency trading are stacking the decks against the average American investor.
BRIAN: Not so fast, say others. I mean yes, fast, but not problematic. We put a call into a person who happens to be in this camp, and who watches the market just about as closely as anyone.
BOB PISANI: My name is Bob Pisani and I’m the stocks correspondent for CNBC.
BRIAN: What interested us about Pisani is that he finds reassurance about the workings of his beat, the market, by turning to our beat, history.
BOB PISANI: We have seen these efforts to get information faster and more accurately for 200 years
ED: Pisani related a story from 1790, when the US Congress was convening in New York City. There, representatives were debating a proposal that the brand-new government take on the now virtually worthless debt of the old Continental Congress in the colonies. And word of this debate started leaking out to people on the streets of New York.
BOB PISANI: Traders heard it, and they said, my heavens. If this goes through, this old debt’s going to be worth a lot of money. So they literally hired fast boats, I mean, literally, fast boats, to cross the Hudson River to get to New Jersey and points south and go to as many communities they could find and buy up the old debt, reasoning– and it turns out correctly– that the trading would go from $0.10 on the dollar to much, much higher. And that’s exactly what happened.
ED: These boats moved much faster than news tended to flow in those days. And so the traders were in a position of knowing much more than the people they were buying their crummy debt from.
BOB PISANI: And when the Congress found out, representatives from Congress gave a big speech on the flooor– this is 1790– and said, these people who are hiring fast boats are terrible people. One guy said, we cannot afford to be plundered by harpies. He called the people who were making these trades rapacious wolves.
BRIAN: Whether it’s fast boats or computer algorithms, Pisani says professional traders have always been the first to adopt new information technologies. And so yes, they always have had a bit of an edge, at least until ordinary investors catch up with them.
Pisani shared another great example from the 1830s. A new turnpike had just been opened between New York and Philadelphia. A Pennsylvania stockbroker took advantage of the new road to set up a private signal station for him and his traders.
BOB PISANI: The signals were transmitted through an optical telegraph. That was a series of boards that were on poles. And these poles were mounted on hills that could be seen by a telescope every, say, seven or eight miles.
So there were reports at the time that indicated that it could transmit stock information from New York to Philadelphia anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes. Now, this in the 1830s. You’re 100 miles away. That is truly high speed trading, and a very good example of it for the time.
ED: A few years later, the telegraph came on the scene. Once again, says Pisani, professional traders were among the first clients. Even as late as the 1880s, Western Union estimated that 87% of its revenue came from market speculators and racetrack gamblers.
There was also the stock ticker, an 1860s technology that produced an automatic feed of numbers straight into the offices of brokers who could afford it. In each case, Pisani says, traders have taken advantage of new technology to cash in on market movement just a little faster than the rest of us.
BRIAN: So then why shouldn’t we look at all this and conclude that the market is not really a true market, but rather one that’s being gamed by wealthy insiders? Because, says is Pisani, history also suggests that the less we pay attention to the latest financial news, the better we’re likely to do.
BOB PISANI: The average person investing in long term for the stock market has done very well throughout history. Most people should be buying stocks for their retirement, unless you want to spend all your time glued to a stock ticker and watching CNBC, which is a great channel to watch. I would not advise people to trade that way.
ED: Whether it’s our financial markets or the processing speed of our computer chips or the news cycle itself, it’s often remarked that life in America is getting faster and faster and faster. And so we thought it would be worth taking an hour out of this Indianapolis 500 weekend to reflect on the theme of speed throughout America’s past. We have stories about an around the world race, and about the sport that takes pride in its disconnection from the clock. But first, a story about cars.
BRIAN: We have a friend in the history department here at UVA by the name of John Mason. Now, John usually writes about Africa. But it was the history of a place much closer to home that I was curious to learn about. So John took me there a few Sundays back.
[CAR ENGINES REVVING]
JOHN MASON: We are at Eastside Speedway, which is just north of Waynesboro, Virginia. We’re on a property that was developed in the mid-1960s by a guy called Al Gore.
BRIAN: No, not that Al Gore. This Gore was a Navy construction worker in World War II. And his claim to fame? In 1954, he built what’s believed to be the first drag racing track east of the Mississippi. He apparently had the backing of local sheriffs. Why? They wanted to get hot rodders off the streets.
JOHN MASON: After World War II, there was a lot of concern about hot rodders and juvenile delinquents. Drag racers wanted to be hot rodders, but they wanted to be respectable hot rodders. And the way that you became a respectable hot rodder was to not race on the streets and distinguish yourself from people were doing that by racing on the track.
BRIAN: The “respectable” hot rodders at Eastside Speedway come from all kinds of backgrounds. They’re business owners, lawyers, mechanics, even cab drivers. And, in many cases, they’re racing in the same cars they drive to work.
Because in drag racing, it’s not simply about which car crosses the finish line first. It’s also about how well racers do relative to their own predictions of how fast they will cover the eighth of a mile course. This handicapping system keeps the race exciting, ensuring that the cars with the most money poured into them don’t always win.
[CAR ENGINES REVVING]
MALE SPEAKER: Here’s a Dodge. What is this? Definitely a Dodge.
JOHN MASON: That’s a Dodge Neon.
MALE SPEAKER: Dodge Neon.
JOHN MASON: No, we’re literally looking at cars that you might see on the street. Some of them are really souped up. Some of them are not.
KELLY JONES: Can we enter Brian’s car as a last minute–
JOHN MASON: You absolutely could.
KELLY JONES: Really? Brian, will you do it?
JOHN MASON: There’s one sticking point. He would need a helmet.
KELLY JONES: Oh, I’m sure someone will lend you one.
[CAR ENGINES REVVING]
BRIAN: That was our producer, Kelly Jones, nominating me and my Toyota Rav4 for a race. But after watching some of these cars at the starting line– sometimes they actually pop wheelies as they take off– I decided I was going to stick to the stands.
JOHN MASON: The fastest of them will be accelerating in under five seconds, in an eighth of a mile, to 140 miles an hour.
BRIAN: That’s incredible.
JOHN MASON: It almost defies the laws of physics, right?
BRIAN: John told me that when he first went to Eastside, he was kind of racing snob. He was a Formula One racing fan. And he had something of a prejudice about the kind of people and the lack of diversity he’d find at a drag race.
JOHN MASON: I came over here expecting to find nothing but a bunch of dumb rednecks. Pardon my language, but that was the prejudice that I came with. And I was flabbergasted by what I saw, because what I saw were about a quarter of the racers were African-Americans.
And maybe 10% of the racers or so were women. The women were racing head to head against the men, and they were often winning. And the African-Americans and the whites were getting along fine. In fact, it was clear to me, just sort of looking around, that there were genuine friendships between the people at the track.
BRIAN: Had you not seen that in your previous experience with Formula One?
JOHN MASON: Motorsports in general tends to lack diversity. There are very few African-Americans involved in other motorsports outside of drag racing.
JOHN MASON: In some forms of racing, there have been conscious entry barriers to African-Americans and other ethnic minorities. Stock car racing, for instance, got its start in the Jim Crow South. It got its start on segregated tracks, where very consciously, African-Americans were not prohibited, but were discouraged from attending.
BRIAN: And everything else was segregated.
JOHN MASON: Right. And if we’re talking about the ’50s and the ’60s, there was a single African-American who participated in NASCAR at the highest level. His name was Wendell Scott. He did win a race, but he faced enormous prejudice. And the kind of prejudice that Wendell Scott faced discouraged other African-Americans from following in his footsteps.
Drag racing was different. Drag racing grew up in Los Angeles. Organized drag racing grew up in Los Angeles, in the suburbs of Los Angeles right after World War II, in a very different racial environment. I’m not saying that it was a racial paradise, but it was much more open to participation by blacks, Asians, Latinos.
And from the very beginning of the sport, blacks, Asians, and Latinos in Southern California were participating in drag racing. Drag racing also had an ethos that was articulated by the National Hot Rod Association. And in their bylaws, it said, we will not discriminate on the basis of race or ethnicity or religion–
BRIAN: What year is this, roughly?
JOHN MASON: Mid-1950s. So if you wanted to be part of the NHRA, you had to subscribe to its principles. So those principles come across the country to the Midwest, to the east, and even to the south. The other thing about drag racing is that it’s the form of motor sport where cars are least likely to bang into each other.
In stock car racing, where they’re going around in circles on a track, cars will often hit each other– not enough to cause a wreck, but there’s bumping and banging in stock car racing. But in drag racing, the lanes are separate and equal.
So the bumping and banging in other forms of automobile racing means that tempers flare a lot. And often enough, they do get into fights. The fact that the cars don’t stray out of their lanes unless something goes horribly wrong in drag racing means that you don’t have those heated, angry confrontations between people. But I think that eased the participation of African-Americans and other ethnic minorities.
BRIAN: John in your day job, you’re a scholar of South Africa. Is there something American about this need for speed?
JOHN MASON: I would love to be able to say yes. But no, they have drag racing in South Africa. I have been to drag racing in South Africa.
BRIAN: And was it more mixed, as far as you know?
JOHN MASON: The drag races that I went to in South Africa were certainly mixed. And South Africa has more races than we do. It has Indians and colored people and Africans– and whites as well. And they were all at the racetracks, where I was. And as far as I could tell, that at least on the track, everybody was getting along just fine.
BRIAN: John, thanks for slowing down to spend some time with us on BackStory today.
JOHN MASON: It was my pleasure, Brian. This has been a lot of fun.
[CAR ENGINES REVVING]
BRIAN: That was John Mason. When he’s not out at the track, he’s an historian at the University of Virginia.
ED: It’s time for a short break, but stay with us. When we get back, the novel Around the World in 80 Days leaves some with a hankering to beat that record.
BRIAN: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be right back. We’re back with BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.
ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. Today on the show, stories about speed.
BRIAN: In 1873, French writer Jules Verne published the massively popular novel, Around the World in 80 Days. It’s about a guy named Phileas Fogg, who wins a bet that he can circumnavigate the globe in, you guessed it, 80 days.
It may not seem very impressive today, but in the 19th century, moving that distance in that span of time would have been almost unthinkable. The novel captivated readers here and abroad. They wondered, could that kind of speed actually be possible?
ED: The young journalist Nellie Bly certainly thought so. And she thought she was the person to do it. She first pitched her idea for an around the globe adventure to her bosses in 1888. But the editors of the New York World thought that only a man could accomplish such a feat.
Bly, who had already made a name for herself as an investigative journalist, felt otherwise. And her editors finally agreed to back her expedition a year later, guessing that the public’s fascination with the trip would help them sell papers. BackStory producer Nina Earnest has the story.
NINA EARNEST: November 14, 1889 was a big day for Nellie Bly. She was about to embark on a trip around the world, and do it faster than anyone had ever done it before. Her route would take her 21,000 miles east, across the Atlantic in Europe, through the Suez Canal, through British Asia, across the Pacific to San Francisco, and back to New York City on America’s own transcontinental railroad.
The 25-year-old set off for her record-breaking voyage from New Jersey, aboard the steamship Augusta Victoria. Wearing the one dress she would wear throughout her entire voyage, Bly looked ready for anything. Well, almost anything.
JOYCE CHAPLIN: This is where she discovers that she doesn’t have sea legs.
NINA EARNEST: This is Joyce Chaplin, who has written about Bly’s voyage.
JOYCE CHAPLIN: So even during the departure, she starts feeling this. And she stands it as long as she can, and then she vomits right over the ship’s rail.
NINA EARNEST: The New York World announced the reporter’s expedition in the morning paper. One person who read the world’s coverage with keen interest was John Brisbane Walker, the publisher of the Cosmopolitan magazine. Yes, Walker’s Cosmopolitan would eventually morph into today’s Cosmo. But it was a little bit different back then.
MATTHEW GOODMAN: No sex tips for women in 1889. It was a kind of high-toned magazine with essays and poetry and so forth.
NINA EARNEST: This is Matthew Goodman, author of a book about Bly’s voyage. He says that Walker knew his highfalutin’ monthly magazine certainly didn’t have the reach of Joseph Pulitzer’s world. But he still wondered if there could be something in this idea for his magazine.
MATTHEW GOODMAN: And he immediately thought, I should send my own girl reporter, as they were called back then, to challenge Nellie Bly. But what I’m going to do is to send her in the opposite direction, because I think that because of the prevailing winds, it will be quicker to go west rather than east. But who am I going to get? Well, his mind immediately turned to the literary editor of the magazine, who was a 28-year-old woman by the name of Elizabeth Bisland.
NINA EARNEST: Elizabeth Bisland– in personality and style, she was Nellie Bly’s polar opposite. Bisland he was a genteel, soft-spoken southerner. Bly, harkening from Pennsylvania coal country, was scrappier. Bisland was a poet who hosted a literary salon in her apartment. Bly preferred to hang out at saloons.
And Bly, well, she lived for publicity. Bisland most certainly did not. But Walker knew that if he was going to send a woman, Bisland was his best bet. So the same day that Bly set off for New Jersey, Walker called his top woman writer into his office and told her to pack your bags for a trip around the world.
MATTHEW GOODMAN: She was not at all amused by this. In fact, she thought he was kidding at first. And then when she realized that he was serious, she said, no, I absolutely will not do that.
NINA EARNEST: We don’t really know what Walker said to convince her.
MATTHEW GOODMAN: But that evening, eight hours later, she was on a New York Central line, bound for San Francisco.
NINA EARNEST: Americans were soon enthralled by the unusual story. Speculation ran rampant– which route was better, Bly’s east to west or Bisland’s west to east? And, which girl reporter could break Fogg’s record?
MATTHEW GOODMAN: It was considered something very modern about the idea of doing things faster than they had never been done before. We think of today as an age of speed. Everything is fast. And of course it is, but much the same was true of the late 19th century.
NINA EARNEST: The world was getting smaller. Transcontinental railroads were up and running. Steamship companies routinely crossed the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. These kinds of advances had inspired Jules Verne’s adventure story in the first place. But perhaps the most important innovation for these women was the telegraph, which was quickly making the farthest reaches of the globe accessible.
It allowed Bly and Bisland to wire ahead when they were on their way to a new destination, and to send reports back to their eager readers in the United States.
JOYCE CHAPLIN: It’s as if you were to travel now and keep in touch with your social circle via social media, that you’re posting your location on Twitter, you’re announcing where you are on Facebook. So you may be alone wherever you are, but a lot of people know where you are.
NINA EARNEST: Neither woman stayed in any one place for long. Their lives were full of stop, go, transfer, sleep when you can, repeat. They only had a reprieve when a shipper train was delayed.
Those delays made Bisland very happy, as they gave her a chance to do some sightseeing. She loved seeing other parts of the world. Bly, though she snagged seven marriage proposals and adopted a monkey named McGinty, was entirely focused on her goal.
MATTHEW GOODMAN: You know, if it were up to Nellie Bly, she would not have stopped anywhere along the way. And whenever her ship was delayed, she was sort of silently dying inside.
NINA EARNEST: By day 39, Bly had arrived in Hong Kong. She was actually in a good mood, all because she was two days ahead of schedule. But when she got there, she heard some unfortunate news.
MATTHEW GOODMAN: The steamship official there says to her, you’re going to lose. And Nellie Bly says, what do you mean? I’m ahead of time. And the man says, time? I don’t think her name is time. And Nellie Bly says, what on Earth are you talking about?
And he says, the other woman– the other woman is going to win. She came through here a few days ago. And Nellie Bly says, what other woman? And it’s only then that she discovers that there’s this other journalist racing to beat her, and that she is in fact losing at that point.
NINA EARNEST: That’s right. Nellie Bly was 12,000 miles into her journey before she realized that she had actual competition. She was beside herself. And up until the last two weeks of the race, it looked like Elizabeth Bisland was going to win.
On day 64, she was on her way to catch a steamship that would bring her from France back to New York City. If all went according to plan, she would get there a full day ahead of Bly’s schedule. But something curious happened while en route to her departure point.
MATTHEW GOODMAN: Bisland is awoken by a representative of the Thomas Cook travel agency, who tells her that her ship has been delayed and that she needs to take a different ship instead.
NINA EARNEST: Bisland, alarmed and frantic, lost several days searching for another boat.
MATTHEW GOODMAN: As it turns out, that ship had not in fact been delayed. And there has been a great deal of speculation about whether or not that travel agent was simply misinformed, or whether or not that travel agent was in the pay of Joseph Pulitzer and had been commissioned to misinform Elizabeth Bisland and to send her off on this wild goose chase that would delay her enough that Nellie Bly would be assured of victory. That is a mystery that has never been solved.
NINA EARNEST: Bly arrived in San Francisco on January 21, 1890, where a special train was waiting to bring her back to New York as fast as possible. The New York World’s publicity machine had done its work so well that Bly was greeted by tons of adoring fans across the country.
In Topeka, Kansas, for example, 10,000 people came out to see the daring girl reporter. This public exuberance continued as she made her way back to where it all began. Her total time– 72 days, six hours, 11 minutes.
JOYCE CHAPLIN: Crowds are waiting to greet her when she gets back to New York. Cannon are set off. So she wins. She wins within the terms that she had set out. She proves her own publisher wrong, that a woman can indeed do this. And it is a moment of publicly known triumph.
NINA EARNEST: She had smashed Fogg’s fictional record and set a real world record as well. At a time when European empires spanned the globe, Americans loved her for what her triumph represented.
JOYCE CHAPLIN: By 1890, the United States had global ambitions, that they really wanted to control the Pacific and the Pacific world, that they wanted to be rivals to Great Britain. And so having an American private citizen and a woman, not least, go around the world and set a new record was a demonstration that the United States was in on this big planetary venture.
NINA EARNEST: But Goodman says this nationalism may have been a little overblown.
MATTHEW GOODMAN: She was traveling on a German ship. She was stopping in English ports all along the way. She was riding on the transcontinental railroad that had been built, in large part, by Chinese immigrants who were not granted American citizenship. And yet, it was seen somehow is being an American achievement.
NINA EARNEST: As for her competitor, Goodman says that after a grueling 75 days, Bisland returned to New York City to comparatively little fanfare. No cannons for her.
MATTHEW GOODMAN: She did beat Around the World in 80 Days by several days, but is subsequently forgotten about by history.
NINA EARNEST: The same would be true for all those who would soon be setting new circumnavigation records. So why were Americans so captivated by Bly’s adventure? Maybe it was her plucky personality. Maybe it was the New York World’s relentless promotion efforts.
But maybe too, because her trip showed that in this new world of steam engines and telegraphs, a voyage as fantastically fast as Phileas Fogg’s could actually be a reality.
ED: Nina Earnest is one of our producers. We also heard from Harvard historian Joyce Chaplin, author of Round About the Earth: Circumnavigation from Magellan to Orbit, and from Matthew Goodman, author of 80 Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World.
BRIAN: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory, and we’re racing through an hour that’s all about speed– in American history, of course. Now, if I say “quickie marriage,” there’s probably one place that you think of above all others– Las Vegas. But before the lights went up on the famous Vegas strip, Nevada had a different Sin City.
There were certainly many people who thought that Reno, Nevada was the next thing to Sodom and Gomorrah.
ED: This is historian Mella Harmon. She says Reno’s sinful reputation stemmed not from casinos or clubs, but rather from courthouses. For the first few decades of the 20th century, Reno was where people came if they wanted to untie the knot– in a hurry.
MELLA HARMON: Around the turn of the 20th century, Reno was picked as the site for a divorce for a very high profile individual named Laura Corey, who was the wife of William Corey, who was the president of the United States Steel Corporation, which was huge at the time. The media coverage of this event was huge. So Reno immediately caught on as the next great place to go to get a divorce.
BRIAN: The reason people like Mrs. Corey would travel to Reno was simple. In most states, divorce was incredibly difficult. Many states had lengthy waiting periods before divorce could take effect. In New York, you had to have physical proof of infidelity to file. And in the Coreys’ home state of Pennsylvania, divorcees had to wait years just to remarry.
Nevada, on the other hand, made it easy. There was no waiting period. And state law laid out seven different grounds for divorce.
MELLA HARMON: Impotency, adultery, willful desertion, conviction of a felony, habitual gross drunkenness, neglect of the husband for the period of two years. The most common ground claimed was cruelty. And some of the explanations of what the cruelty consisted of was actually quite humorous.
One was a woman was divorcing her husband and he was cruel to her because he never wanted to have her as his partner when they played bridge with other couples. Another was a man was divorcing his wife because she wouldn’t let him listen to the radio in the house. She made him go to stay in the garage.
BRIAN: And these are upheld, I gather?
MELLA HARMON: Oh, yes. Yes, these were successful. I think my favorite was the woman who divorced her husband because he criticized her driving.
ED: There was only one potential snag. And that’s that anyone filing for divorce in Nevada had to prove they were a resident of that state. When Laura Corey got her divorce in 1905, that meant living in Nevada for six months. But sadly, lawmakers soon realized they could attract more would-be divorcees to the state if there were a shorter wait. By 1931, the residency requirement was just six weeks.
BRIAN: Those six weeks translated into big business for Reno. People came from all over the country and world to get their divorces. Hotels and boarding houses sprang up all over town to cater to them.
While the rest of the country slogged through the Depression, Reno enjoyed a housing boom. In the 1930s, Mella Harmon estimates, the divorce trade brought in $5 million a year to Nevada. That’s about $87 million in today’s dollars.
MALE SPEAKER: Oh, well. I guess divorce ain’t much more than a matter of traveling. You check out of the state of matrimony and land in the state of Nevada.
ED: This is from the 1939 film Charlie Chan in Reno, just one of the many free advertisements the city received, courtesy of Hollywood. Reno divorces appeared so often on the silver screen that the city’s name became a euphemism for the act.
FEMALE SPEAKER: [INAUDIBLE] character.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Well, yes. In a way.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Yes, and where did it get you? On the train for Reno.
FEMALE SPEAKER: On the train for Reno.
BRIAN: In real life, movie stars, as well as industrial magnates, were having their divorces splashed across the papers. But most of the tens of thousands of people who came seeking divorces lived far less glamorous lives.
BARBARA DAVIS: That was me. I wasn’t so rich.
BRIAN: Barbara Davis arrived in Reno in 1947. She’d been married in Brazil, but couldn’t separate from her husband there without his consent. So she headed home to California and from there up to a boarding house in Reno to get her residency.
BARBARA DAVIS: The place where I stayed was very modest. But there were people there from New York and from California and other states. I was the only one with a car.
BRIAN: Oh, you must have been popular.
BARBARA DAVIS: I was popular, yes. So I drove the car and some of the people, divorcees there, went with me. And we would sightsee.
BRIAN: A few years after her divorce, she returned to Reno, this time as a showgirl with a traveling review that just happened to book a hotel right across from the Washoe County Courthouse. Her second marriage was failing, and she decided to quietly establish Nevada residency again.
BARBARA DAVIS: That was kind of sneaky, wasn’t it?
BRIAN: That’s all right. I won’t tell anybody. Barbara, did you remarry?
BARBARA DAVIS: Not for a long time.
BRIAN: But you did.
BARBARA DAVIS: Oh, yeah. That was a hobby of mine.
BRIAN: Did that work out?
BARBARA DAVIS: That’s how I worked out. It was my hobby.
BRIAN: Are you looking around now?
BARBARA DAVIS: There’s not too many 90-year-old that are very spry.
BRIAN: Well, it sounds like someone would have to be pretty spry to keep up with you, Barbara.
BARBARA DAVIS: Yes, they would. They would.
BRIAN: If Barbara did find herself in need of another divorce today, she wouldn’t have to travel for it. And that’s not just because she now lives in Nevada. Few states now require a long waiting period to get a divorce or to remarry. And all 50 states offer no-fault divorce, meaning that couples who don’t like playing bridge together don’t have to plead cruelty to a sympathetic Nevada judge.
[MUSIC – TONY CHRISTIE, “DON’T GO TO RENO”]
ED: It’s time for another break. When we get back, Brown vs. Board of Education– the blockbuster case that made speed an entirely subjective matter.
BRIAN: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a flash.
[MUSIC – TONY CHRISTIE, “DON’T GO TO RENO”]
BRIAN: This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.
ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. We’re marking the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500 this weekend with a show that’s all about speed in American history.
BRIAN: In 1954, the Supreme Court handed down its famous decision in Brown vs. Board of Education. Racial segregation in public schools, the court said, deprived children of their right to equal protection under the 14th Amendment. Oliver W. Hill was a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in Richmond, Virginia at the time.
He and his colleagues were filing case after case against segregation, including one initiated by a student protest in Prince Edward County, Virginia. That was one of the five cases folded into Brown. And when the Brown ruling came down–
OLIVER HILL, JR.: It was the happiest I’d ever seen him.
BRIAN: This is Oliver Hill, Jr. He remembers his dad’s reaction to Brown because it was so out of character.
OLIVER HILL, JR.: I mean, he was always pretty low key. He didn’t really emote that much, around the household anyway. And that particular day, I just remember him just beaming.
ED: But the joy didn’t last. The very next year, the Supreme Court mandated a timetable for desegregation. And that’s when speed became an issue. In a case known as Brown vs. Board 2, Chief Justice Earl Warren ordered segregated school districts to comply with the first Brown decision, quote, “with all deliberate speed.”
It was a phrase with built-in ambiguity. And across the South, many school districts took advantage of the ambiguity to take their own sweet time with the order. Some districts in Virginia chose to close their public schools down entirely, while funding so-called private academies for white boys and girls.
BRIAN: I sat down with Oliver Hill Jr. to talk about this depressing chapter of American history. He told me that his father was part of the legal team that was asked to help the court come up with a timetable in Brown 2.
OLIVER HILL, JR.: And in fact, after they had made a few proposals to the opposing counsel and all of them were rejected, my father said they finally, just in exasperated way, asked, well, what do you think would be a reasonable time frame? And the other lawyers came back with 2020. So–
OLIVER HILL, JR.: 2020 was what they thought would be a reasaonable–
BRIAN: So we’re not there yet.
OLIVER HILL, JR.: We’re not there yet. And I think deliberate speed was the most benign translation of 2020.
BRIAN: Do you think that deliberate undercut speed, or do you think that it was intended to kind of reinforce a steady– I have always interpreted it as a kind of steady speed.
OLIVER HILL, JR.: Yeah, I think that’s a reasonable interpretation. But again, I think from the standpoint of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyers, why was there a need for any kind of equivocation? This is now the law of the land. Let’s Institute it.
OLIVER HILL, JR.: The white perception was, particularly in the South, that there would be this bloodbath if it took place too fast. And so I think it was to placate the more southern-leaning members of the court that Earl Warren kind of agreed to that phrasing. And I think that within a year or two, deliberate speed meant never.
OLIVER HILL, JR.: I mean, I was in one of the first groups to desegregate schools in Richmond, Virginia. And that was in 1961, so that was already seven years after the original decision. And even at that time, it was really just token integration. There were just a few black students in a few white schools.
BRIAN: Tell me about your experience, being one of the first African-Americans to desegregate a school?
OLIVER HILL, JR.: It was like entering another world. In the days of segregation in the South, even growing up in a middle class household, my world was circumscribed by the black community. It was very self-sufficient. So I really didn’t have a lot of experience interacting with white people.
And so this first day, it was at Chandler Junior High school in Richmond. I must’ve been 12. And I was walking up the steps. It was a very imposing building. They must have had us come late, because there wasn’t the usual hustle and bustle of kids going in and out of the school.
There was absolutely nobody out in front of the school as I was walking up the steps. I really didn’t know what to expect. And it was interesting. I mean, for the most part, most of the kids and most of the teachers were friendly. There were few, both teachers and students, who you could tell did not want us there.
BRIAN: How could you tell that?
OLIVER HILL, JR.: Well, they would call you names or things like that– not the teachers, but the students. Or they would call you the n word, or any creative thing. One time somebody called me a burnt biscuit.
BRIAN: Oliver, were there moments on that first day or the first week or maybe over the course of your public school education where you kind of wondered whether this was too speedy– I mean, you personally?
OLIVER HILL, JR.: Well, I personally didn’t want to be there. I wanted to be with my friends in the black school. But I’d kind of been geared toward this and so I understood the larger issues. My father would always talk to me about integration of the schools as the process by which people would learn how to live together.
And in fact, that experiment was working pretty well when I first started integrating the schools. Gradually, we had more and more black kids coming in. There was actually meaningful integration for a couple of years. There was kind of a gradual, grudging recognition of each other’s humanity. So the experiment was working.
Unfortunately, just as it was starting to have some breakthroughs in terms of the social experiment, there was that immediate resegregation of schools with white flight toward the end of the ’60s. When, I think, at the point where it was recognized that this wasn’t going to be reversed and this wasn’t going to change, then new strategies were put in place.
BRIAN: Well, some of that white flight– and I’m in no way condoning it– but some of it was in reaction to the court finally getting serious about implementing its decision in 1954 and 1955. In 1964, for instance, the Supreme Court said, there’s been entirely too much deliberation and not enough speed.
What if the Supreme Court, rather than using that phrase “all deliberate speed” had said “immediately, and without delay,” or even something simple like, “within three months,” back in 1955? What if?
OLIVER HILL, JR.: First of all, I don’t think there would have been a bloodbath. I think children are very resilient. A lot of black and white children in the south were playing together anyway. And I think the same social experiment that I was going through in the early ’60s would have happened earlier and in a more comprehensive way.
And I think because of the delay, a lot of other factors started to come into play. Because in the ’60s, once you had the passage of the civil rights laws and society was generally more open for black people, not only did you have white flight to the suburbs, but black middle class flight to the suburbs. And so inner cities started to be starved of their tax base.
You had this concentration of poverty. And so what started out as a race issue started to get conflated with class. And it made the problems of inner city schools and city life in general much more problematic than they would have been without those complications.
BRIAN: Oliver Hill, Jr. is a psychology professor at Virginia State University. He’s also on the board at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, where our show is produced.
ED: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. And we’ve been looking at some of the different ways that speed has come into play in American history. For our final story, we’re going to turn to a sport which, frankly, is probably not the first one you think of when you think of speed– baseball. People, in fact, often complain about the game’s sluggish pace.
But you may be surprised to hear that Americans have not always thought about baseball that way. John Thorn is major league baseball’s official historian. And he says that in the beginning, part of baseball’s appeal was that it was fast, at least compared to its main competition, cricket.
JOHN THORN: Baseball was referred to as “the lightning game,” and you did not have to have a full day available and the ability to take a two-hour break at lunch and then resume play in the afternoon. This is a game that you could play in two hours, and that you could, if you wished, join with your comrades for a game of ball prior to going to work in the morning in the summer.
BRIAN: These days, baseball games clock in at an average of just over three hours. And just this year, major league baseball instituted new rules to cut down on that time. Batters now have to keep at least one foot in the batter’s box between pitches. And a limit will be imposed on pitchers’ warmup time between innings.
ED: As it turns out, these aren’t the first attempts to shorten the game. Early on, balls and strikes were not called, so batters could wait around for a perfect pitch. And pitchers had little reason to throw one. The so-called strike was instituted in 1858, the ball a few years later. John Thorn supports the latest quickening efforts, but points out that the main thing slowing down games is commercials.
He says that the new rules do seem to be reining in the length of the games, so far shaving off about eight minutes, but aren’t really affecting the game’s pace.
JOHN THORN: For me, that is the enduring pleasure of baseball, not only that it permits you to reflect and observe every aspect of the game in isolation, but it gives opportunity for conversation. And it is the spur to memory. The pause between plays is what imprints the plays on your mind.
If you try to make baseball like basketball or hockey, then it’s no longer baseball. And then it’s like the mouse who wished to fly and becomes not a bird but a bat, and that is anathema to all.
BRIAN: Reflecting on all of this, we got to wondering how the speed of the game registered to the players on the diamond. So I got in touch with the person who used to control that speed at the major league level.
BILL LEE: Hi, this is Bill Lee, AKA the space man. I am a pitcher, still to this day at the age of 69.
BRIAN: Bill “Spaceman” Lee pitched for the Boston Red Sox and the Montreal Expos from the late 1960s to the early ’80s. He’s beloved by fans for his play, but also for his unfiltered and colorful off-field persona. I asked him to begin by describing his pitching style.
BILL LEE: I would say it was reluctant. I didn’t want to– [LAUGHS] I didn’t want to be a pitcher. I wanted to be a ball player, but I happened to be able to throw strikes. I worked fast, kept the ball down, kept the ball in the ballpark, made the game have a little pace to it, which is what usually brings about good play.
BRIAN: When you say that you played fast, what does that actually mean on the pitcher’s mound?
BILL LEE: It meant I reduced it to almost like a cardiovascular experience. I kept it within the rhythm of my breathing and my heart. And my mind had no control over it. I did it as a parasympathetic thing. And I think that’s what Rod Dedeaux would run on. He goes, Tiger, Tiger, what are you thinking?
BRIAN: He is a baseball coach, Rod Dedeaux?
BILL LEE: Rod Dedeaux at USC. And I remember I was pitching to a guy from Harvard, Pete Varney. And I was going to walk him intentionally, and thereby putting the go-ahead run on base. And he goes, Tiger, Tiger, what are you thinking? And I go, well, I thought he hit a home run off me earlier.
And he goes, stop right there. Don’t think. Cut your head off. Let your body do the work. I’ll do the thinking here. And from that day on, I kind of worked in a rhythm that Yo-Yo Ma and anybody that is proficient in their work does it at a parasympathetic and not a cerebral cortex level.
BRIAN: And you said it makes other people play better. I’m a baseball fan. I think I know what you mean. But could you explain in a little more detail how pitching fast, playing fast helps everybody on your team?
BILL LEE: Well, it makes them not think also. It makes them have to be reactive, because I’m pitching to contact, thereby at any time the ball’s going to be put in play. And they have to react to that. And they get into a rhythm also.
It just seems to make a better tempo to the game and it forces the hitter to swing. If he thinks every pitch is going to be a strike, he’s not going to be taking pitches because he says, I can hit this pitch.
BRIAN: We’ve been talking about the speed of the game and how you wanted to speed it up, get everything out of your mind. But you’re known for this pitch called the spaceball, which was really slow. I want you to take me through that pitch– the windup, the release, and the results.
BILL LEE: Yes. I developed that pitch after Nettles threw me to the ground in New York and separated my shoulder and I couldn’t throw hard. So if you can’t throw hard, you have to slow down your breaking stuff. So I kind of developed this pitch. And I learned how to throw it. And I learned it was unhittable.
And it takes a big windup. You really speed up your delivery. And then you slow it down by landing, throwing your hips back so that you get more loft, more trajectory, more spin. And then it comes straight down on home plate. And the hitters swing furiously at it and they can’t hit it.
BRIAN: So today, you hear the announcers talk about location, location. You’d think they were real estate agents or something. But it sounds like you think speed is the crucial variable as a pitcher.
BILL LEE: It is. See, the plate is a three-dimensional object and it has a little bit of depth. But if you take time involved and know how to increase the plate to be a six-foot length to the pitcher by slowing down time, you have got much more area to pitch to than the guy that just throws the same speed.
So I have always looked at the plate. And that’s why as I’ve gotten older, my fastball is no longer fast, but I have three different changeups like Stu Miller. And I am hittable. These guys– I play in these 45- and 50-year-old tournaments, they can’t hit me with a paddle because I change space and time and the dimensions by adding and subtracting, instead of in and out.
BRIAN: Bill, I hate to bring it back to something as mundane as a time clock, but what do you think about putting the clock on baseball? Doesn’t that threaten to kind of ruin the very nature of the sport as a timeless sport?
BILL LEE: Yes. You can’t put a clock on it. You get to get rid of the ticks. The fact that you have a producer that tells the pitcher when he can throw the first pitch when the last commercial’s there, you go to a ballpark there’s a clock in the back ticking down. And I’m going, what the hell was that clock yesterday in [? Oakland? ?] And it was all about commercialism and when the guy can throw the first pitch and when the guy points to the pitcher. It’s no longer a game. It’s a sideshow.
BRIAN: Bill “Spaceman” Lee played for the Boston Red Sox from 1969 to 1978 and the Montreal Expos from ’79 to ’82.
[MUSIC – HARRY NILSSON, “SPACEMAN”]
BRIAN: To close out the show today, we have a special treat. We’ve asked international auctioneer champion Paul Ramirez from American Ag Auctions in Arizona to read our credits for us.
PAUL RAMIREZ: Hi, here we go. [AUCTIONEER-LIKE PATTER] BackStory. BackStory is produced today by Tony Tony Field, Nina Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, Kelly Jones is there in the corner. Emily Gadek ups the bids. Bruce Bruce Wallace and Robert Armengol. Jamal Millner on the boards. [ACTIONEER-LIKE PATTER] we got help help help from [? Coley ?] [? Elhigh ?].
And special thanks go to David David David Beringer and Lacey Lacey Ward and Tony Tony Field, and the top man in charge, Mr. Andrew Wyndham. [AUCTIONEER-LIKE PATTER] major major support from anonymous donors, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph Joseph Joseph and Robert Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis foundation.
[AUCTIONEER-LIKE PATTER] more cash from the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts and humanities and the environment, and by the History Channel, history made every [AUCTIONEER-LIKE PATTER] day day [AUCTIONEER-LIKE PATTER].
FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is Professor of History Emeritus at UVA, and Senior Research Fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is President and Professor of History at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
MALE SPEAKER: BackStory is distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exhchange.