Monday, October 30, 2017

Red Skelton, Pat Riley and the NFL Players' Association - a History of Inmates Running the Asylum

In October 2017, NFL owners met behind closed doors to discuss the League’s response to the “Anthem” controversy, “to kneel, or not to kneel,” that was the question.  During the meeting, Houston Texans’ owner Robert McNair spoke up in support of imposing a rule requiring players to stand for the anthem. He had the temerity to use an uncommon variant of a well-known, everyday idiom to make his point. 

“We can’t have the inmates running the prison,” he said.

The players were not amused.

Some players claim to have been offended at being referred to as “inmates.”  Jesse Jackson complained that the comments reflect a “plantation mentality.”  But the kerfuffle may display a misunderstanding of, or lack of familiarity with, a common idiom on both McNair's and the players' part, than anything so insidious.

The players' high school English teachers could be offended by the fact that the players mistook what was clearly a variant of an innocent, common idiom that should never be taken literally.  And McNair’s high school English teacher might be offended by the fact that he mangled the more common form of the idiom, which despairs of inmates running the “asylum,” not the prison.

Of course it’s not nice to call someone a lunatic either, but as is the case with most idioms, invoking it doesn’t suggest (and shouldn’t be taken as suggesting) that the players are literally “inmates” of an asylum, much less a prison. 

The players should not be surprised that the idiom was used against them.  They join a long line of powerful entertainment luminaries at the receiving end of the idiom, many of whom went on to gain the power, influence and monetary rewards they sought.  The idiom itself appears to have originated, or at least come into widespread public awareness, among entertainment executives critical of entertainers using their star power to exercise more influence over their talents and take a bigger piece of the pie.

Today’s NFL players are not the first sports figures to be called “inmates.”  It is not even the first time the NFL Players’ Union have been figuratively called “inmates.” 

In 1982, during the first NFL strike that would ultimately win a 55% profit-sharing arrangement for the players, NFL Hall of Famer Hank Stram said:

. . . the players could never win their demand for a percentage of gross receipts, because “you can’t let the inmates run the asylum.”[i]

Hank Stram was ultimately proved wrong.

In 1978, aging former tennis star Jack Kramer worried about the effect of  latter-day superstardom on the unity of professional tennis.

The inmates run the asylum.

“The superstars like Connors, Borg and Vilas are laws unto themselves,” said Kramer, who turned pro in 1947 after winning his second straight Forest Hills.  “They play exhibitions whenever they so please, or simply skip a tournament altogether.

“Someone likie Nastase, who was suspended at Wimbledon, takes advantage of the lack of central control and continues to play team tennis.[ii]

Jack Kramer was ultimately proven wrong.

In 1975, NBA coaching legend Pat Riley, then a player, made waves when the Lakers traded him to Phoenix and he refused to play out his option and rejected a new contract that would reportedly have given him a 25% raise.

Veteran guard Pat Riley, acquired from the Los Angeles Lakers this week, was suspended Wednesday by the Phoenix Suns for failure to report to the National Basketball Association club.  We are not going to let the inmates run the asylum,” said Jerry Colangelo, the Suns’ general manager.[iii]

Also in 1975, sportswriter Bill Conklin criticized the Major League Players’ Union when they took a poll to rate umpires.

It was preposterous.  Here again were the inmates running the asylum.[iv]

The idiom, like many pop-culture trends, may have originated in Hollywood.  It first came into widespread public use during the time when the star system started to destroy the old-time studio system.  Studio heads bemoaned the newfound power and influence of big-name stars.

But the boss of another [Hollywood] studio commented: “The star system has got way out of hand.  We’ve let the inmates run the asylum and they’ve practically destroyed it.”[v]

Mt. Vernon Register-News (Mt. Vernon, Illinois), June 12, 1962, page 7.
The earliest, widely published example of the idiom I ran across was made in reference to comedian Red Skelton buying his own studio.

HOLLYWOOD (UPI) – Filmtown has been described as a place where the inmates run the asylum.

One inmate, Red Skelton, soon will be running his own little asylum – the first comedian since Charlie Chaplin to boast his own movie factory.[vi]

The expression had been kicking around Hollywood for awhile.  It was well-known enough in 1952 that Arthur Loeb Mayer (not Louis B.) planned to call his book on the history of the film industry, “The Inmates Have Taken Over the Asylum.”  Perhaps it is a sign that the expression was not yet widely known that he (or the publishers) changed the title to “Merely Colossal.”[vii]   

The earliest known example of the expression[viii] dates to perhaps the earliest example of film artists wresting control of the means of production from the businessmen’s hands.  Upon hearing the news that D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were pooling their wealth and talent to form United Artists studio in 1919, Richard Rowland, then the head of Metro Pictures Corporation, is said to have remarked:

 The lunatics have taken charge of the asylum.”[ix]

But regardless of its point of origin, today’s NFL players should take heart in the fact that many of the same people who were historically and metaphorically referred to as inmates of an asylum ultimately had the last laugh. 

Only time will tell which inmates (and I mean that metaphorically), players or owners, will wind up running the NFL asylum. 

Readers of this article might also enjoy:

[i] The Windsor Beacon (Windsor, Colorado), September 23, 1982, page 4.
[ii] Asheville Citizen-Times (Asheville, North Carolina), August 20, 1978, page 11.
[iii] Panama City News-Herald (Panama City, Florida), November 6, 1975, page 22.
[iv] Clovis News-Journal (Clovis, New Mexico), February 2, 1975, page 16.
[v] The Iola Register (Iola, Kansas), June 12, 1962, page 1.
[vi] The Republic (Columbus, Indiana), June 24, 1960, page 5.
[vii] The Philadelphia Inquirer (Pennsylvania), December 30, 1952, page 19 (“Arthur Mayer’s new book about Hollywood, “Merely Colossal,” originally was titled, “The Inmates Have Taken Over the Asylum.”  Mr. Mayer also wanted his author’s listing as “not Louis B.”.
[ix] Terry Ramsaye, A Million and One Nights: A History of the Motion Picture, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1926, page 795.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

President Trump, President Cleveland and the History of not getting elected "Dog-Catcher"

"A Canine Festival in Honor to the Abolishment of the City Pound," The Wasp, Volume 7, Number 262, August 5, 1881, page 88.

Early in the morning of October 24, 2017, in response to criticism from a Senator from his own party, President Donald Trump tweeted that Senator Bob Corker “couldn’t get elected dog catcher in Tennessee.” 

Candidate Trump directed similar language toward Governor Patacki of New York more than two years earlier.

Donald Trump was not the first person to use the failure to achieve the office of “dog catcher” as a metaphor for general unelectability. The office of “dog catcher” has served as the benchmark for electoral futility since at least 1831. 

A precursor to the familiar idiom appeared in a report of the Antimasonry Party convention in Baltimore in 1831.  When it was discovered that Maryland had not sent any official delegates to the convention, a delegate nominated J. S. Shriver for the position.  But who was this Shriver?

Who he is I cannot learn; but he is probably some obscure citizen, or disappointed office seeker, who is willing even to be known as a dog-catcher, rather than not figure in the public prints.

Boston Masonic Mirror, Volume 3, October 8, 1831, page 118.

A year later, again in Baltimore, the office of “dog catcher” featured in a humorous sketch critical of Englishmen who criticize the United States while enjoying its benefits.

You remember that Basum Hall, though he writes so fierce against this place, he tried to get the office of Dog catcher![i]

Mississippi Free Trader (Natchez, Mississippi), December 14, 1832, page 1 (From the Baltimore Morning Visiter).

In 1851, the Whig Party adopted a new party “Constitution.”  Critics believed that supporters of the new platform would become politically irrelevant.

A travelling correspondent of the Cincinnati Gazette, writing from New York, thus gives utterance to his views and feelings on the receipt of the news that this State had gone for the New Constitution by twenty thousand majority:

“We see old whig doctrines trampled under foot, and new fashioned democracy, of the most ultra school substituted . . . .  Upon my word, Messrs. Editors, neither of them could get my vote for the office of dog-catcher.”

The Spirit of Democracy (Woodsfield, Ohio), July 30, 1851, page 3.

The earliest examples of the idiom in its familiar form appear a couple decades later.

In 1874, a description of past political corruption under Boss Tweed noted that otherwise unelectable people could win, despite the will of the voters.

Handsome majorities were thus rolled up, and candidates who could not be elected to the position of “dog catcher” in any other country received an almost unanimous “count” at the hands of pliant election inspectors.

The New York Herald, October 29, 1874, page 3.

But the standard form of the idiom was not new in 1874.  The same idiom had appeared in print decades earlier, but without the “dog-catcher,” at least not by that name.  Earlier examples of the idiom used an alternate title for a dog-control officer, one more descriptive of the brutal nature of the business as practiced at the time – “dog pelter.”

A certain gentleman was put in nomination by his friends for a nominal office; after which, by arrangement, one of the little strikers, who could not be elected dog pelter for any village in the State, arose and asked, if this gentleman who was nominated, did not once run for the State Senate against a regular nominee – it was answered by another of the same class in the affirmative, which by the way, was false.

Boon’s Lick Times (Fayette, Missouri), April 27, 1844, page 2. 

It is unclear whether the word, “pelter” used here relates to the verb, “to pelt,” meaning “to strip off the skin or pelt of (an animal)”, or “to pelt,” meaning “to assail vigorously or persistently”.  But since dog-control officers of the period regularly clubbed and skinned their quarry, it may be a distinction without meaning.  Another title for dog-control officers of the day makes the point more plainly, albeit more colorfully.

One Pawnee [Oklahoma] editor said of another Pawnee editor that “he couldn’t be elected commissary clerk to the chief dog skinner of the Flat-head Indians.”  That is probably what led to the shooting. 

Witchita Daily Eagle (Kansas), December 26, 1899, page 4.

The title of “dog-killer” received the same treatment, idiomatically.

We can never vote for a man who habitually gets drunk – no, not even for the office of dog-killer.

Daily Gazette and Comet (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), August 12, 1858, page 2.

The office of “scavenger” was also sometimes invoked.  In the District of Columbia in 1867, for example, during one of the first election seasons in which black men had the right to vote, and most of them were expected to vote Republican, a low-level Democratic politician, the candidate for Assessor of the Second Ward, said of his Republican opponents:

. . . many of them could not be elected scavengers by white men.

Evening Star (District of Columbia), May 31, 1867, page 1.

“Scavengers” were responsible for removing and burying dead animals and, in some instances, cleaning and emptying privy vaults (outhouse pits).  Their duties intersected with, and were sometimes combined with, the duties of dog-catcher.

Some dog-catchers were known by a more genteel title, Pound-master.  The title was invoked, idiomatically, to criticize a corrupt warden in Oregon in 1874.

[T]he Penitentiary is nothing better than a convenient appliance of an unpopular one-horse politician, who on a square vote before the people of Oregon, could hardly get elected Pound-master.

Weekly Oregon Statesman (Salem), October 17, 1874, page 2.

In some jurisdictions, the “Pound-master” was a supervisory position over all of the dog-catchers, pelters, skinners and killers.  It is also the latest of the titles to appear in print, which is  not surprising because early dog-control officers had no need for a pound; after all, “skinners,” “pelters” and “killers” had little need for a pound to hold living dogs.

But don’t judge the past too harshly.  As brutal as the system may seem from a modern perspective, the concerns were real, and the conditions of life, coupled with their limited understanding of epidemiology and disease, made the practice seem a necessary evil. 

“Rabies,” or “hydrophobia” as it was then known, commonly spread by rabid dogs or “mad dogs” as they were then known, was lethal to humans in every case at the time – every case!!!  And a rabies vaccine was not developed until the 1880s.  Romanticized notions of cruelty to animals therefore had little sway with parents of children bitten, or liable to be bitten, by packs of wild dogs roaming the streets of the late-18th and early-19th centuries.  And widespread, affordable spaying and neutering services were not commonly available on a large scale until 1969, more than a century later.[ii] 

That’s not to say that there was no resistance.  There were always those who were appalled by the brutality and the indiscriminate enforcement of dog laws, and the owners of sporting dogs, lap dogs, and family pets lived in constant fear that Rover, Rex or Fido would get caught up in a dragnet.    But persistent worry about the very real danger of letting the dogs out, where they might contract a deadly, communicable disease, kept the regime in place in most jurisdictions. 

But despite good intentions, the standard dog-control systems were frequently beset by divided loyalties, temptation, greed, and outright cruelty. 

Dog-catchers and the like were public officials, backed by the powers of the state, endowed with the power to confiscate dogs and other loose animals, arrest members of the public interfering with their duties, and to fine the owners of loose, unlicensed or un-muzzled dogs, depending on the wording of the local ordinance. 

As a general rule, local “dog laws” provided for payment to the dog-control officer a statutory bounty for each dog killed and buried.  Later, as slightly more humanitarian reforms took hold, dog law provided for statutory holding periods of a few days, during which owners could redeem the dog for a set fee.  If unredeemed, the dogs would be killed, and the dog-control officer would earn the bounty.

In some cases, the bounty for killing a dog exceeded the fine paid to redeem a pet, which could motivate a dog-catcher to kill more dogs than might otherwise be required.  In other cases, the ability and tendency of women of leisure and gentleman sportsmen to afford and pay the ransom made it more economically efficient to nab (if not outright steal) lap-dogs, hunting dogs and tame family pets of the local gentry, thereby lining one’s pockets while avoiding the inherent danger, mess and bother of hunting down actually dangerous rabid or wild dogs.  
The archives are full of accounts of frequent violence between dog-control officers and owners, good Samaritans and animal lovers.  It was a messy business, but nonetheless desirable to someone with few real skills and political aspirations.

As a general rule, dog laws generally required burial of unredeemed dogs, some jurisdictions permitted dog-control officers to profit off the carcasses.  They reportedly made nice gloves.  The fur and oils also had some value.  And sausage makers were widely believed to make use of the meat when they could get away with it.  "Oh where, oh where has my little dog gone?"

In time, what Lincoln (in different circumstances) called the “better angels of our nature” won out, assisted by improved living standards and advancements in science, technology, hygiene and medicine. Perhaps that is why the more common name of the position slowly changed from dog-killer to –skinner,  to –pelter, to –catcher.  Or perhaps the expression stuck because “nothing had the satisfying bite of ‘dogcatcher,’” as Ben Zimmer suggested in his “Word on the Street” column on the same topic, in the Wall Street Journal.

"I've ketched a daisy one this time, Mulvey! Will I put him in der cage?" Time, Volume 8, Numbe 203, July 7, 1888, page 4.

Dog-Control “Elections”

Of the various titles for dog-control officers, “Pound-master” seems to be the one most commonly “elected,” as we understand the word, in the sense that the candidates appeared on a ballot at the polls during an election. 

That does not mean, however, that the other positions were not “elected,” at least as the term was used during the period.  Although some dog-catchers and the like were subject to direct election by the people, most of them seem to have been chosen by a vote of commissioners, city councilmen, aldermen, or neighborhood, precinct or ward officers – so “elected,” in a way, even if not by a direct vote of the electorate. 

It is important to keep in mind that the “dog-catcher” system developed at a time when the patronage system was in full swing, long before the civil service reforms of the late-19th century.  And given the local power and sometimes relatively decent earning potential, dog-catcher remained a prized political office in some jurisdictions, at least for certain kinds of people with limited skills at the bottom of the local political rung.

The office of dog-catcher, and the like, was frequently used idiomatically to refer to the lowest rung of the political ladder.

The republicans will see every mother’s son of them in the place that Bob Ingersoll does not believe in before they will let them elect an officer, from United States Senator down to a village dog-catcher, if a republican wants the place.

Clarksville Weekly Chronicle (Tennessee), November 26, 1881, page 1. 

There are enough citizens of this country identified with labor who, if they would vote as a unit, could elect a man to every office in the gift of the people from the president down to dog-catcher. . . . Knights of Labor.

The Irish Standard (Minneapolis, Minnesota), September 11, 1886, page 2.

Then, as now, residents of Washington DC complained that they were denied the right to vote for their representatives – even the lowliest ones.

The triumvirate of a Caeser, Crassus, and Pompey, the gradual absorption of power by a few men, and the general dislike of an unrepublican form of government.  We have more voters here than in at least three states of the union, and yet we are not allowed to elect even a dog catcher [(although, as we saw earlier, that was not literally true)].

National Republican, April 10, 1883, page 4.

Dog-catchers, themselves, might be of any political stripe.

There are twenty official dog-catchers in this city.  Nine are for Cleveland, nine are for Harrison and two are on the fence, and will probably not decide how they will vote until 3.45 o’clock on election day.

The New York Evening World, August 17, 1888, Extra, page 2.

The now familiar idiom, with “dog-catcher,” started appearing in print in the mid-1880s.

St. John has made his appearance in the Ohio campaign in opposition to the Republican ticket.  St. John’s influence in politics is in the direct ration of his distance from home.  In Kansas he could not be elected dog catcher.  He is of course paid for his services; or perhaps he is working out the old contract of last year under which three Ohio Democrats put up a sum of money to keep him on the track.

The Osage City Free Press (Kansas), July 9, 1885, page 1.

There is about as much prospect of Congress being guilty of enacting the Woodburn bill as there is of Nevada ever again producing a statesman who could be elected to the office of dog-catcher in a civilized community where the offices were not openly sold to the highest bidder.

Salt Lake Herald, March 2, 1886, page 4. 

And in 1888, another President was associated with the expression, although this time on the receiving end of the jibe.  As President Grover Cleveland approached the end of his first term, members of his own party longed for James G. Blaine, whom Cleveland had defeated for the nomination in 1884; they though he would be more electable.

The difference: Jas. G. Blaine is the idol of the people in his own state – Maine.  Grover Cleveland could not be elected for dog-catcher in his own ward or in his city, where he is best known.  This latter we get from Col. Sylvester, a resident and former neighbor of Cleveland in Buffalo.  Mr. Sylvester was one of the old settlers of Emporia, but has resided in Buffalo for years back.  He is well and favorably known both here and in New York.

The Emporia Weekly News (Kansas), May 10, 1888, page 2. 

Perhaps it was the frequent reporting about President Cleveland that pushed the expression into greater awareness and popularity.  Whereas the idiom and its predecessors appeared only infrequently before 1888, it appeared with regularity in association with Grover Cleveland, and continuously thereafter. 

Cleveland’s supporters ignored the criticism – they sent their man to Washington to clean up the swamp, and that was why he had so many haters.

Unpopular with Rascals.
(Chicago Herald.)

An insolent Republican newspaper asserts that Mr. Cleveland is so unpopular in Washington that he could not be elected dog catcher for the district.  This may be true, yet Mr. Cleveland has caught a great many dogs in his day – stealing.  His success in that line would naturally make him unpopular with the claim agents and other parasites that throng the capital.

The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky), February 18, 1889, page 4.

Some things never change.

Grover Cleveland in Happier Days, 
New York Tribune (Twinkles weekly comic supplement), March 27, 1897.

Other Offices

Dog-catcher and the like was not the only position sometimes considered the bottom of the ticket.  In 1841, for example, the third-party Abolitionist Party placed the office of “path-master” in that position.

It is hereby declared to be the duty of every abolitionist who possesses the right of suffrage to vote for every officer elected, from President of the United States to path-master of a road district, unless prevented by the providence of God.

The Liberator (Boston, Massachusetts), January 29, 1841, page 1.

And like dog-catcher, path-master was similarly (if less frequently) considered metaphorically unattainable by the allegedly unelectable. 

They are politically dead forever.  Neither of them could be elected pathmaster in their own school districts.  Theirs is the ultimate fate of all Demagogues.

The Representative (Fox Lake, Wisconsin), November 16, 1866, page 2.

After losing an election, and before President Benjamin Harrison's inauguration, pro-statehood advocates in the Dakotas thought that President Cleveland would become even more unelectable if he vetoed their admission to the Union.  

It is rumored at Washington that Cleveland will veto the [Dakota] admission bill. . . .  Should he veto it that act would forever settle the fate of the democratic party in the north.  While in the northwest a man who would admit that he ever voted for “His Wrecked and Wretched Greatness,” would find it impossible to be elected pathmaster.

The Daily Plainsman (Huron, South Dakota), February 1889, page 1.

He did not veto the bill, leaving it for President Harrison to sign after assuming office.  But Cleveland fooled them all four years later by winning a second term as President; the only person to serve two non-consecutive terms in office. 

And in the 1890s, ex-Senator Thomas Ferry of Michigan, a man who had once been a heart-beat away from the Presidency while serving as President Pro-Tem of the Senate following the death of Vice President Henry Wilson in 1875, led an anonymous, unelectable existence in Washington DC.
When the Philadelphia Exposition was opened, Vice-President Thomas W. Ferry officiated.  You may see him any day in Washington.  Few know him even by sight.  He could hardly be elected pathmaster in Michigan, to whose fame he for years added special luster.

The Courier-News (Bridgewater, New Jersey), August 19, 1892, page 4.

On occasion, dog-control officers were mentioned together with other low-level offices, as was the case with one of the most colorful versions of the dog-catcher insult I have run across:

An obscurity-spawned, slum-hatched, curmudgeonish nonentity, who couldn't honestly or legally, have got 500 votes out of all our 1,250,000 population, for constable, bung-smeller or municipal dog-pelter.

The Weekly Caucasian (Lexington, Missouri), May 10, 1873, page 1.

Trump Cleveland "elected dog catcher" dogcatcher etymology origin history idiom expression phrase
Trump Cleveland "elected dog catcher" dogcatcher etymology origin history idiom expression phrase
Trump Cleveland "elected dog catcher" dogcatcher etymology origin history idiom expression phrase
Trump Cleveland "elected dog catcher" dogcatcher etymology origin history idiom expression phrase

[i] Translated from the black-face minstrel-style “dialect,” so popular at the time, in which the original sketch was written.
NOTE: Post updated May 4, 2021, to add images from The Wasp and Time Magazine.