Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Holy Moses

I realized at some point that there were a lot of famous or at least accomplished people I could think of named Moses. Maybe this should be particularly interesting – it’s just a coincidence. Earlier this week I learned about one such Moses I had never heard of before. It started me thinking, and the next thing you know, I had a blog post in mind. Stay with this. These people are more interesting than this silly premise might lead you to believe. At least you will want to see who is on the list. We’ll start with the big guy.


The namesake for all those future Moses’s, Moishe’s, Mousa's, Musa’s, etc. Of course, we have no idea if he ever existed, although I, for one, seriously doubt it. Moses doesn’t appear until the second book of the Bible, Exodus, and then dies in the fifth book, Deuteronomy, but somehow is considered the author of the first five books. OK. I love myth, but couldn’t they make it even just a little bit internally logical?

Supposedly, Moses’ mom put him in a basket and floated him down the river so that his life would be spared from the babycide (I made that up, but I like it) being committed by the evil pharaoh. Of course, this story is strongly reminiscent of the legendary beginnings of Sargon, an almost prehistoric, but real king who preceded any possible Moses by a millennium or more, just as the story of the Sumerian flood story found in Gilgamesh long preceded the Bible’s version. The two birth stories are too close to be coincidental. Both had secret births, were floated down the river in a basket made of rushes or reeds, both were plucked out of the river and went on to Kingship or leadership. The Bible tells us that Moses’ name means “drawn from the water”. Sargon was pulled to safety by a god called “The drawer of waters”. Hmmm. Of course, Sargon then got to have sex with the goddess of love for a few years, but he told his own story. So . . . .

After a life of toil, Moses did not get to enter the promised land and God took him before his eyes lost their luster and his vital force was gone. Why? Well because he didn’t like the way Moses brought water from a rock to sate his thirsty people. Nice guy, this God, by conventional standards, right? Don’t think I’m going through the whole Moses rap. You all know the stories and this isn’t Wikipedia. But, one thing I did learned about Moses recently I’m betting you don’t know either is that he also plays a role in a relatively new religion known as Chrislam founded in Nigeria almost 30 years ago by a fella named Tela Tella. Chrislam is exactly what you think it is. Sort of like the Yogalates of religion. Good luck with that one, Tella. It is definitely going to take off soon.

Robert Moses

I grew up on Long Island, where everyone learns that Robert Moses built the parkways and Jones Beach. I guess he did. He built (well, not him, but he planned it all) a whole mess of stuff and lived for 92 years. Recently, some authors have concentrated on the hundred thousand or so of poor people who had to relocate because of his chosen route for the Cross-Bronx Expressway through their homes rather than a less populated but wealthier area. Not to go one for ever, but he was responsible for the parkways throughout New York, with Long Island given priority, and lots of bridges including the Triborough, The Throgs Neck, The Whitestone, the Verrazano and . . . you know what? He always bored me, which is why I never read The Power Broker. You read it. I’m moving on to a more contemporary Moses.

Moses Malone

I am no longer sure who the dominant centers in basketball are. Maybe Tim Duncan and Yao Ming. I am told that Shaquille O'Neal is on his way out. But, this next Moses, aka Big Mo, although no Shaq physically, was a massive individual himself, and a dominant figure in pro basketball for over two decades. His longevity is, in itself, extraordinary, but he was also a great player. Let’s take a look at the longevity list of some of the other greats:

Michael Jordan – 16 years
Wilt Chamberlain – 14
Oscar Robertson – 14
Jerry West – 14
Bill Russell – 14
Larry Bird – 14
Magic Johnson – 13

Big Mo, who started in the American Basketball Association (ABA), played for 21 years as a pro. Only Robert Parish, 21 years, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar, 20 years played about as long. Since Malone played his first two seasons in the ABA, Parish has the NBA record (he also played about 300 more games than Malone, which is a lot). Malone’s best years were in the early 80s when he teamed with Julius Erving, Maurice Cheeks, Bobby Jones, and other stars to make one of the best teams in basketball history on the Philadelphia 76ers.

He scored over 27,000 career points (5th all time), had over 16,000 rebounds (again, 5th all time, but by far the most offensive rebounds since they started counting), was MVP 3 times, made the Hall of Fame (a given), and the celebrated, if controversial list of the 50 greatest NBA players ever. Not too shabby. All in all, a pretty good Moses.

Robert Moses

Didn’t we do him already? No, different Robert Moses. This one it is unlikely you ever heard of unless you read up on the civil rights movement. A standout student, Moses left Harvard for a while to go south to be a Civil Rights leader in the early 60s. Like many of those leaders and participants, he was ridiculously brave, repeatedly risked his health and life, while being very dedicated to the non-violent aspects of the movement. It is intriguing though, that, unlike many of the other leaders, he long resisted every attempt by the media to make a hero out of him. He would not cooperate with a number of attempts to make him famous or do interviews for a long time. He didn’t exactly escape notice, as there are a few biographies about him and a number of books on the movement which speak of his important role.

However, he fled the United States during the Vietnam War and spent many years teaching in Africa. Make of that what you will. He finally sought more attention for his civil rights work when he wanted to publicize the Algebra Project that he founded, and wrote a book called Radical Equations, comparing the civil rights movement with his math project. A lifetime teacher, he believed it was critical to help blacks in algebra, which he believes is a “gatekeeper” course. He’s my favorite unknown Moses.

Edwin Moses

This Moses is a little bit of a miracle himself. A track star in the 1990s, he dominated his event, the 400 meter hurdles as few athletes have ever dominated their sport. The 400 meter hurdles is an unusual track event. It requires great speed, near that of a sprinter, phenomenal stamina like a middle distance runner, and the ability to stay focused enough to hurdle over 3 foot high barriers (intermediate hurdles) by running between hurdles with perfect strides.

Here’s what is different about this Moses from other great athletes. For ten years he completely dominated the event and NEVER lost. He won the gold medal in the 1976 Olympic Games and again in 1984. He would have certainly won in 1980 too, when the U.S. boycotted the Soviet games. How do I know? Because between 1977 (after he was already Olympic champ and world record holder) until 1987, he won 122 straight races, something that is looked upon in track and field like DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak in baseball. Nobody does that.

Most of the greatest champs occasionally lose, although there are a handful of others with similar records (Marciano comes to mind, although he fought in 9 years a lot less than Moses raced). Moses was not able to keep his streak going forever and came in 3rd in the 1988 Olympics at age 33 (as if that would be bad for anybody but him), when most track athletes are long, long retired. He first broke the world record in ’76 (and broke it again the same day) and then held it for 16 years. Yet, he still has the 2nd fastest time ever. Kevin Young, who broke Moses’ record, really only had two great years.

Moses Ezikiel

This is the Moses I learned about earlier this week while I was visiting the Stonewall Jackson house in Lexington, Virginia. He was a sergeant in the Civil War for the Virginia Military Institute, which he graduated from after the war. He later studied art in Europe where he became the first non-Italian to win the Prize of Rome. After the Civil War he made a statue of “liberty” for a group in Philadelphia. Until 1917, he made many famous statues and busts, including of Washington, Jefferson, Homer, the gods Pan and Neptune, Jesus and even Napoleon and Robert E. Lee. A pretty accomplished Moses. But, since I merely skimmed a book about him, that is all I have to say about him.

Grandma Moses

Her name wasn’t really Moses. It was Anna Mary Robertson, but I’m listing her anyway. She took up art, at first embroidery, after her husband passed away when she was 67 years old. Arthritis required her to pick a new craft. Her first painting exhibition happened when at age 78 years old (1938). She was Norman Rockwell before Norman Rockwell. By the next year, she was internationally famous. Her longevity coupled with her late start is what makes her so memorable.

Think about it. She was born just before the Civil War. She started painting and became famous at the beginning of the Second World War. She died during the Vietnam War in 1961. Or, looking at it another way, she was born before the Civil War and died when I was 2 ½ years old. Holy Moses.

George Moses Horton

I’ve never been a poetry guy, but this Moses interested me for another reason. Born a slave at the end of the 18th century, he began creating poetry as a kid. At some point, he was allowed to go down to the local college where the students would pay him to recite for them. He wasn’t the first slave to publish poetry, but he was the first in 50 years or so, and the first ever in the South. His 1829 book, The Hope of Liberty, was published in North Carolina, a place where, at the time, there was great fear of slave literacy, not to mention any actual hope of liberty. Here’s an excerpt from one sample of his work, The Slave’s Complaint, which I plucked off of a poetry website (the name of which, I’m afraid I can’t place now):

Am I sadly cast aside,
On misfortune's rugged tide?
Will the world my pains deride

Must I dwell in Slavery's night,
And all pleasure take its flight,
Far beyond my feeble sight,

Worst of all, must Hope grow dim,
And withhold her cheering beam?
Rather let me sleep and dream

Something still my heart surveys,
Groping through this dreary maze;
Is it Hope?--then burn and blaze

I admit, Ogden Nash (“If called by a panther, don’t anther”) is more my cup of tea, but not bad for someone with every single disadvantage you can imagine, and then some. This Moses sort of makes us seem like underachievers. He went north after the Civil War, but freedom may have taken his edge off, and he wrote no more.

Moses Fleetwood Walker

It was when I learned about this Moses a few years ago that I realized how many famous Moses’ there were. He was another pre-Civil War baby, born in 1856. He (and his brother, who wasn't named Moses, and played less) was actually the first black ball player in the major leagues. I know you are thinking about Jackie Robinson, but this Moses was an old man by the time Jackie Robinson was born. He was the first black baseball player in the major leagues in 1884 when his team joined the American Association, then a major league. His team folded after that year, and no one else wanted him or his brother. Although he continued playing on other teams in lesser leagues until the 1890s, there were no more black players in the major leagues until Robinson. Just for the sake of history, there was another ball player named Bud Fowler who actually played before Moses, although not in a major league.

Moses was also interesting for several reasons. He started playing baseball at Oberlin College, a rare integrated school where he studied Greek and Latin among other things. He also went to law school at the University of Michigan, although I am not certain whether he graduated or not.

Not surprisingly, his life and career were a constant struggle against racism. In 1891, he stabbed a white man to death in Syracuse, New York, who was part of a group harassing him. He was acquitted on self-defense grounds to huge cheers due to his local popularity.

In the early 1900s, he started a movement to have blacks leave America to colonize in Africa. As with everyone else who tried this, not so much luck. You can read his story in a fairly recent biography, Fleet Walker's Divided Heart: The Life of Baseball's First Black Major Leaguer, by David Zang.

Phoebe Moses

You have actually heard of this Moses before, but you know her as Annie Oakley. Why do I know her real name? Well, I was only in one school play in my life and it was Annie Oakley. I made sure I got the role of the store proprietor because he was the only character who didn’t have to sing. Anyway, she was kind of interesting and I read up on here when I probably should have been studying something in school.

The play, as far as I remember it, was fairly accurate. At least, she learned to shoot as a child to help feed her family, defeated a champion, Frank Butler(“Everything you can do, I can do better”), in a shooting contest and eventually married him. They toured with Buffalo Bill’s show for many years. She toured in Europe where she famously shot a cigarette out of a German nobleman’s mouth. Supposedly, she had an amazing eye and could shoot holes in coins and corks out of bottles from 30 paces. She eventually moved with Frank back to her childhood hometown, and died there of poisoning from handling lead bullets her whole life. Frank immediately stopped eating and died within a few weeks.

Honorable runner up: baseball player, Moises Alou of the Alou dynasty. If anyone out there has better Moseses than I do, just let me know. I'll add 'em to the list.


  1. Well, I've never been the first one to comment on my own blog before, but since a reader emailed me on my personal account with a good suggestion, I will relay his message -- how could I forget Moses Maimonides?

    Oops. He is so right. I didn't rank my list, but he might have been number one if I did. Here's to Moses Maimonides, who wrote the only things I ever learned about in those horrible years in Sunday School for which I had any appreciation.

    There are a few things I like about MM, which I'll comment on even though I blew it in the main blog. His Hebrew name was Moshe bin Maimon, Moses Maimonides being the Greek version, meaning the same thing in English, Moses, son of Maimon. His Arabic name, which includes a version of the Hebrew, is a lot longer. An acronym for his name gave him the nickname Rambam, and not the Kinky Friedman character. MM was a biblical scholar, a philosopher and a celebrated medical doctor. You can read his Guide For the Perplexed, which is still published, but his treatise on hemorrhoids might be a bigger help. He was a follower of the Muslim philosopher, Avicenna, and also Aristotle, both of who might be worth a blog post someday. He was wise enough to know that astrology was nonsense. Though he believed in God, he thought that anthropomorphisms were necessary to regulate man, but not true. He wrote quite a bit, and we still have some of it. I have read little he wrote, but enough about him (thank you, Will Durant) to know about as much as I just wrote.

    Sorry, Moses. I did not mean to offend.

  2. Anonymous11:47 AM

    Love this blog. Interesting, entertaining, and original....Rock 'n roll, baby!


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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .