YAM Notes: July/August 2023

By Marty Snapp

Looks like Bob Fairclough will have to put his retirement plans on hold for a while. Bob is a biophysical chemist at UC Davis, where he is professor emeritus in the Department of Neurology’s School of Medicine. At an age when most of us are retired, he has just been awarded a sizable grant from the National Institutes of Health to continue the project that has been fascinating him for decades: developing an improved diagnostic test for myasthenia gravis, a chronic auto-immune disease that prevents the skeletal muscles – the ones that contract to allow your arms and legs to move and your lungs to breathe in and out – from receiving messages from your nervous system.

Among the sufferers: David Niven, Aristotle Onassis, Sir Lawrence Olivier, Phil Silvers (aka Sgt. Bilko) and Sleepy the Dwarf, whom some sources say was modeled after a friend of Walt Disney’s who had myasthenia. And Bob thinks his research could eventually lead the way to a treatment as well as a test.

“It’s a terrible disease. There are two types: One type kills your muscle cells, and that’s not good. Remember, your heart is a muscle, too. But the less lethal type is still terrible. You take a couple of steps and then you want to sit down quick.

“But when I started out, I didn’t say, ‘I want to cure a disease.’ That wasn’t my motivation. What I really wanted was to find the answer to a question that has intrigued me since childhood: What makes stuff stick together?”

(Specifically, what makes atoms combine into molecules? And how do these molecules interact? I would elaborate, but I think the only one in our class who can really explain what Bob is doing is Charlie Carter. Suffice it to say it’s a really big deal, with potentially far-reaching implications, and the National Institutes of Health are willing to fork out big bucks to find out.)

“I love studying molecular interactions. I hope this research goes beyond developing a test for this disease to actually treating it, and I think it has potential for other auto-immune diseases. But no matter where it goes, research always leads to understanding. So if this isn’t the answer to a complete cure, it’s a step in the right direction.”

And science isn’t Bob’s only forte. Chris Kule, who was his roommate in Saybrook, says he also throws a really nasty rising fastball.

“I took him down to the stone courtyard underneath the big tree, and he started throwing. Before I knew it, he was really throwing hard. All of a sudden, as the ball was descending it took a big hop and ended up whizzing right by my left ear. I said, ‘Can you do this again?’ And he threw another one. This time it took a dive and suddenly hopped, whizzed by my right ear, and broke a window on the second floor! Ned Flynn saw the whole thing and can vouch for me.”

Being a good reporter, I immediately called Ned, following the old newspaper maxim, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Alas, he said he doesn’t recall the incident. But he didn’t say it didn’t happen, either. So, to quote Chris’s favorite movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, “This is the west, sir. When the fact becomes legend, print the legend!”

Meanwhile, Ned, a longtime license plate collector and member of the American License Plate Collectors Association Hall of Fame, has finally landed the Holy Grail of license plates, a 1940 commemorative plate issued for the Ford Motor company by the state of Pennsylvania to celebrate its 28 millionth car.

“It was on Ebay, and the seller obviously had no idea what it was, but I recognized it for what it was right away. It was not in the best shape, so it must have had a hard life, but it survived the metal drives during World War II. Typically for eBay, the competition really starts just before the auction ends. Snipers (bidders who have been lurking in the weeds) will bid for it up to the last minute.

“I had put in a quite substantial bid, hoping it would survive the snipers, and it did. He got a very decent price and shipped it off to me promptly. It was a little rusty, but I cleaned it up, and it looks much better. I’m going to display it at the next ALPCA convention in Denver at the end of June.”

And speaking of baseball, did you know that Rob Wood’s grandfather was none other than Smoky Joe Wood, the ace fireballer for the Red Sox from 1908 to 1915, whose numbers were positively Koufaxian? Over his three best seasons he had 72 wins, 27 losses, and an ERA well below 2.00. Ty Cobb and Shoeless Joe Jackson both said he was almost impossible to hit, and Walter Johnson said, “Can I throw harder than Joe Wood? Listen, my friend, no man alive can throw harder than Smoky Joe Wood.”

Unfortunately, his career arc was Koufaxian, too – cut short by injuries, which is why he was never elected to the Hall of Fame. After his career was over, he was hired by Yale to be its baseball coach, where he served for 20 years and coached his son (and Rob’s uncle) Joe Wood Jr. ‘41.

A few years ago, Rob and I hatched a plan to get his grandfather elected to the Hall of Fame by its Oldtimers Committee, and I called a friend of mine who is a HOF voter for advice. He called back a few days later and said, “I have bad news for you. The Hall takes up these cases decade by decade, and they won’t start considering Smoky Joe’s decade until 2030.”

Oh well. That’s baseball. As Bart Giamatti said, “It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.”