Desi Arnaz is the most famous man outside of St. Joseph to ever stand in the shadow of his wife. That this reality unfolded in during Peak Homemaker, the1950’s, is a tribute to the spectacular talent of Arnaz’s other half, Lucille Ball.

History’s pigeonholing of Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo obscures his prodigious talent as a comedic actor, musician, and trailblazer. This man banged his drum, cinematically framed the pratfalls of his wife, and changed the world.

Arnaz pioneered use of the three-camera format in sitcom staging and had the idea of retaining the rights of each I Love Lucy episode, thus inventing the syndicated rerun. I Love Lucy singlehandedly forced the industry to switch from filming grainy kinescopes in New York to recording on the West Coast with film. He wanted to shoot in color long before anyone else in television was doing so.

And he was never so much as nominated for an Emmy. There’s not a single book solely about Desi Arnaz outside of the one he himself wrote.

This is nowhere better demonstrated than the couple’s “Cuban Pete” number, which was preserved from couple’s national tour when it was shoehorned into an I Love Lucy episode. Desi’s doing all the frontloading here. Lucille Ball doesn’t even show up until at least halfway through the song. Which is the point. Because in the end it’s all her gig. She’s Lucy. She’s the star. She just is.

Later, when interviewed about her marriage to Desi, Lucy said something to the effect that he could never manage to overcome destructive tendencies—that for all his rocket-powered talents with and without a script, he would build something up, then tear it all down again. He couldn’t help it.

Meanwhile, in a casino not far from the footprint of Riverfront Stadium, one of the most famous Cincinnati men outside of Cincinnatus himself sat at the blackjack casino and laid down a chip. This wouldn’t have been a big deal had Pete Rose not dedicated quite so much time undermining his own tremendous talent.

For, like the antics of the Ricardos, every single thing that Pete Rose did was broadcast live. There were no retakes; there were no calls for review. You couldn’t DVR the Big Red Machine. It was all live live live, and if you flubbed a line or overslid second, you were entering a place from which there was no returning. It was a highwire act not once a week, but every single day, and sometimes twice a day, for weeks and weeks.

One of the Reds Hall of Fame tour guides used to tell every tour group to file past the 70’s World Series trophies that if any member of the Big Red Machine were on any other team, he would shine forth as the biggest star that franchise ever had. But the Cincinnati team was so star-stuffed that they obscured one another’s greatness, and it became impossible to appreciate them individually.

But you know and I know that when the greatest lineup in the history of the sport features a hometown boy, he is more equal than the others. He always will be. Pete was the star. He just was. And that is what slowly gave him the idea that whatever he did, whenever and wherever he did it, would be just fine with everyone else. He couldn’t help it.

 

There existed a great deal of irony beneath I Love Lucy’s satin-hearted title card. Adept as he was as a businessman and producer, success led Aranz away from what he was perhaps best originally best at—timing a line, enjoying his American dream life, and expressing himself musically. As the marriage wrecked on wicked shoals of the entertainment world, Desi faded behind the camera with a bottle, while Ball rode the last possible wisp of I Love Lucy’s fumes all the way into the 80s. She was her own force in the Desilu boardroom, but without her finest straight man, her performances were never quite the same.

I do not mean this as criticism. How could Michael Jackson follow up Thriller? And how does anyone follow up pretty much singlehandedly creating the sitcom? For, drawing on the structure of radio shows and Aranz’ innovations, Lucy built it, Seinfeld deconstructed it, and The Office did away with Desi’s three cameras and the live audience altogether. And with the fourth wall hemming us all in together, we’re right back where we started: Real people acting out their own folklore under the closest billing possible, a married couple playing a married couple.

Absurd as it seems, in an era which now rather graphically depicts where babies come from, television characters couldn’t even say the word “pregnant” on-air, let alone show a woman who was expecting. I Love Lucy did away with these barriers, but now entire plots from the series are now demonstrable hate crimes. In “Lucy Goes On a Diet,” for example, Ricky’s fob-off reasoning du jour that Lucy can’t join him in his show is that she’s too fat to fit into the costume, so she spends the next 28 minutes starving herself and demonstrating various forms of exercise bulimia. Try this in Current Year and see if the whole wide world comes out on the other side of it with one brick still on top of the other.

It’s instructive how cultural phenomenons, from an increasing distance, seem to have emerged from different solar systems. Every now and then, I’ll hear complaints that the Reds fandom has never matured past the Big Red Machine. Why should it? Why not continue to digest the great riches of an entire decade of dominant baseball? Is forty years too long, or do we need a longer drought to fully appreciate the absolute feast that was the entirety of the 1970s?

 

“He’s just leaning into it now,” a weary Reds fan posted on a Facebook ad in which a beaming Rose advertises his new gambling podcast. He’s leaning into it because there’s nowhere else for him to go. After gambling, then denying the gambling, then admitting to the gambling, then crying about the gambling, then becoming bitter about all the focus on all the gambling, Rose is out of shifts. What is there but casino opening gigs?

There is but one taboo in baseball, and it’s not talking about the no-hitter while the no-hitter is being no-hit. It’s not corking the bat or banging on garbage cans or even departing in the middle of the season. You’ll be jeered at on Twitter for this, but you won’t be cast into the Cooperstown outer darkness. And once you’re out there, when there’s no where else to go, you might as well embrace it.

In the interim, whenever anyone mentions Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, or Joe Morgan in the context of Cooperstown, it’s never long before someone mentions the teammate who isn’t there. Pete Rose is a larger presence in the Hall of Fame for not appearing in it than he ever could by his induction.

As I watched news footage of Rose in a white Reds cap lay the ceremonial first bet at the Hard Rock Casino, it occurred to me that he has, perhaps, finally figured this out.

 

There were those who didn’t want Arnaz involved with I Love Lucy at all, citing concerns about his thick accent and the couple’s then-socially sticky marriage. Not for the first time, Hollywood grossly overestimated the racism and narrowmindedness of their fellow Americans.

So the Arnazes laid the matter before the people. Desi went touring nationwide with his band and took Lucy with him. Successful apart, they were a smash together. And so it was that six seasons of Lucy Ricardo trying to burst into her husband’s show was made a reality by Lucille Ball actually bursting into her husband’s show.

And if you can handle one more spiral on the irony tie-downs that grounded I Love Lucy, consider this: Lucille Ball could dance quite credibly and even carry a tune, thank you very much.

Perhaps amused by it all, Desi twice appeared on What’s My Line, once with his wife and once alone. Since any word out of his mouth would draw a direct line to his identity, he faked a French accent. And when he signed in with Lucy at his side—she wrote her name first as he crouched beside her in front of the camera—he melded her performance with his own high-pitched responses, utterly confounding the panel.

Almost-right answers obscured the truth. One panel member suspiciously wanted to know if “you have a spouse who is as famous as you are.” Another triumphantly guessed that the mystery celebrity was “the world’s greatest comedienne, Lucille Ball.”

It took quite some time, but somebody finally figured it out.

“It’s both of them!” she exclaimed.

 

“It’s amazing,” one of the Big Red Machine pitchers said to an assembled Redsfest crowd—I think it was Jack Billingham– “how this team managed so many wins without a single pitcher.”

He’s right, of course; the Machine’s legend rests on its offensive laurels, with little attention to the men who kept the other team’s score within reach. While the rest of the team was throwing out the other team at second from home and barreling into fellow All Stars, the pitching staff, ever-rotating, fails to fetch much at baseball card auctions. It is, perhaps, the price of the ring, the cost of being a World Champion and yet still sinking below the notice of even those everyday Hall of Famers, them and the man who will never join them.

But up there on the highwire, day after day and season after season, these players knew they were creating something entirely new. It wasn’t Pete. It wasn’t Bench.  It wasn’t the men in the Hall of Fame and the men out. It wasn’t even Sparky.

It’s all of them.

19 Responses

  1. LDS

    Great article (BTW, couple of Aranz spellings). The BRM’s pitching was probably better than it has been credited but certainly not comparable to the offense. Imagine the outcome had it been or had Kuhn not nixed the Vida Blue trade. Seaver & Blue with the remainder of the BRM might have plated another WS title. Did Pete gamble? Yep. Did he ever throw a game? I have a hard time imagining that. Should he be in the HoF, ABSOLUTELY.

    • Doug Gray

      No, he should not be in the Hall of Fame.

      Pete bet on the game as a player. From the first time he placed a bet on a game in Major League Baseball his stats moving forward should not have happened. We don’t know when that was and God knows Pete will never tell the truth about it – even when he was making millions of bucks off of telling the truth in his book he wasn’t even willing to tell the whole truth. And all of that ignores what he was doing with local high school sophomores during his playing career.

      That dude sucks.

      • LDS

        How many reprobates are already in the HoF, like Ruth, Cobb, et. al? What’s one more. His baseball performance is it. That he’s scum? Well, he’s not alone in baseball or the HoF.

      • Doug Gray

        Continuing to make mistakes because they were made in the past isn’t a good reason to keep doing something.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Thanks LDS! That’s what I get for uploading this at 2AM! Corrected 🙂

  2. west larry

    I was absolutely stunned by this article. This is, by far, the best article I’ve ever read on the sport of baseball. The comparison of Rose to Arnez was brilliant, as both were jaw dropping stars on the 20% of the time that they were in the limelight, and equally awful in the 80% of the time that they were just pedestrians. I feel that both men should be judged by what they did when they were in the limelight. Should Rose be in the Hall of Fame? Definitely if he is measured for what he did for himself, for his team and for baseball. Should he be in the Hall if judged by his off-field antics? Definitely no. But this is not a” all saints” nomination, and if Ty Cobb is in the Hall, Rose should definitely be in the Hall as well. Again, a great article, and I may have swerved off the main points of your article.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      I greatly appreciate your kind words. And I think your comment stayed on topic much better than my article did 🙂

    • Old Big Ed

      Most of the viler Cobb stuff has been debunked, for what it’s worth, as the legacy of a hatchet job by writer Al Stump. See Charles Leerhsen’s Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty (2016). The Boston Globe reviewed it as: “The best work ever written on this American sports legend: It’s a major reconsideration of a reputation unfairly maligned for decades.”

      I was always skeptical of the Al Stump version of Cobb, because it was too wacky to be true.

      • Mary Beth Ellis

        That book is on my reading list. I was furious when I found out Cobb has been smeared as a racist. It’s one of the worst lies you can tell about a person.

  3. Jimbo44CN

    I think most can agree that Pete is a jerk. My Mom worked with people that went to High School with Pete, and they all had the same opinion, but, that does not mean he doesn’t belong in the hall. When he was on the field, he was a team player that gave everything he had, every day. Was he a not very nice person and a gambler, yes, but should he be in the HOF, yes also. Would I love to see a current Reds player with his on field attitude and drive, YES, we all would I beleive.
    BTW, great article Mary Beth.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      thanks so much for reading and the kind words, Jimbo!

  4. Mark Moore

    Love it, MBE!! The Desilu and BRM angles are fantastic.

    I’d put that BRM team up against any of the high-powered teams today. That was lightening in a bottle and we caught it and held it for as long as we could.

    Pete is an arrogant @$$ and, IMO, he is still a HOF’er. But that’s not the point, is it? The point I read was about the spiral of self-destructive behavior that somebody can’t (or won’t) stop and the bitter end that remains.

    It was all of them … that’s my key take away.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Mark, thanks so much for highlighting the destructive spiral. I’ll bring that out further on the rewrite 🙂

  5. rick in boise

    As someone who got dubbed “Little Ricky” because of that show… I had to read this. Great, great job!

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Thank you Rick! If it makes you feel better, Vivian Vance demanded to be called “Viv” in the next two shows she did with Lucille Ball because she was tired of being hailed as “Ethel,” and the real-life Desi Jr had a massive identity crisis. After seeing a kid named after your fake father who was played by your real father who you are also named after… no wonder he got into drugs.

  6. Scott C

    Wow! That is a lot to unpack . Great work! and Great reading!

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Thank you Scott. I LOVE the term “unpack,” and have from the first time I heard it from one of my favorite English profs. It sounded like opening a present 🙂

  7. SOQ

    Nice article Mary Beth. I’ve been a fan of your writing for a long time. Love the comparison of Desi and Pete. But I must point out, Pete’s gambling isn’t what has kept him out of the HOF, but his inability to show remorse for his indiscretions. He has had several opportunities where a door opened for him to take ownership and he refused to. He is a sad case. I feel sorry for him and angry at him at the same time. His accomplishments are well represented at the HOF. But there will never be a plaque of him and deservedly so.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      I think “sorry for him and angry for him at the same time” is a pretty understandable emotion to have. Thanks for your perspective.