Tuesday, November 19

The Debunker: How American is Apple Pie?

by Ken Jennings

If the Plymouth Pilgrims could see the orgy of overeating and megastore-shopping that their descendants have made of their holiday, I think we can all agree: they would feel nothing but pride. But how much do we really know about our November carb carnival? Ken Jennings, of Jeopardy! fame, talks turkey about the Thanksgiving misinformation we’ve been swallowing all these years.

The Debunker: How American Is Apple Pie?

More pie is eaten in America on Thanksgiving than on any other holiday. Pumpkin pie, which was eaten at the second Plymouth Thanksgiving feast in 1623, is the number one choice nationwide, with 44% of respondents in a 2012 poll choosing it as their holiday favorite. Apple pie, at 22 %, was a distant second, but it’s the dessert most inseparably connected with other American ideals, like Mom and baseball. Just how American is apple pie?

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Thursday, November 14

The Debunker: What Did Pilgrims' Hats Really Look Like?

by Ken Jennings

If the Plymouth Pilgrims could see the orgy of overeating and megastore-shopping that their descendants have made of their holiday, I think we can all agree: they would feel nothing but pride. But how much do we really know about our November carb carnival? Ken Jennings, of Jeopardy! fame, talks turkey about the Thanksgiving misinformation we’ve been swallowing all these years.

The Debunker: Did Pilgrims Wear Those Big Hats with the Buckles?

Most of us probably only have the sketchiest ideas as to what spiritual convictions led the Mayflower pilgrims to the New World. (Um, religious freedom? Or something?) But we’re sure of one thing: they all dressed really boringly. Black and white from head to toe, with big buckles on their hats, right? And belts. And shoes. Pilgrims were all about the buckles. Maybe they left England so they could worship their buckle-god, Bucklorr.

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Tuesday, November 05

The Debunker: Where Did the Mayflower Land?

by Ken Jennings

When the Plymouth pilgrims sat down to their historic harvest feast in the fall of 1621, they had managed to survive a very tough first year in the New World, with the help of their Wampanoag neighbors. If they could see the orgy of overeating and megastore-shopping that their descendants have made of their holiday, I think we can all agree: they would feel nothing but pride. But how much do we really know about our November carb carnival? Ken Jennings, of Jeopardy! fame, is here to talk turkey about all the Thanksgiving misinformation we’ve been swallowing all these years.

The Debunker: Did the Mayflower Land at Plymouth Rock?

As American symbols go, Plymouth Rock is such a potent one—right up there with the Liberty Bell and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo—that tourists are inevitably disappointed when they visit it today at Massachusetts’s Pilgrim Memorial State Park. It’s just a lump of granite—and a surprisingly small one, since about two-thirds of the rock has been chipped off over the years. In the late 19th century, the date “1620” was carved in its surface, to vouch for its bona fide Plymouth Rock-ness. But did the pilgrims really land at Plymouth Rock? We’ll never be sure, but the historical evidence is so flaky that it seems very, very unlikely.

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Tuesday, October 29

The Debunker: Did Bill Buckner's Error Cost the Red Sox the World Series?

by Ken Jennings

To true American sports fans, October means only one thing: Weeks 5-8 of the NFL season baseball’s mythic World Series! Jeopardy!’s Ken Jennings is from Seattle, where the baseball season never extends into October, so he has plenty of time this month to take a swing at four popular misconceptions about four of the league’s most storied ballplayers.

The Debunker: Did Bill Buckner’s Error Lose the 1986 World Series for the Red Sox?

It’s Exhibit A in any explication of “the Curse of the Bambino,” that 86-year period of futility and self-flagellation that defined being a Red Sox fan in the 20th century. The 1986 World Series against the Mets, as many fans remember it, was decided by first baseman Bill Buckner, who let an easy ground ball roll between his legs in the bottom of the tenth inning, costing his team the series. Never mind the guy’s twenty-year career, 2,715 hits, and 1980 National League batting title. He was forever the goat, the pariah, the guy who choked. Red Sox fans sent Buckner death threats and heckled him on the field until the team released him the following year.

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Tuesday, October 15

The Debunker: Did Roger Maris Get Asterisked?

by Ken Jennings

To true American sports fans, October means only one thing: Weeks 5-8 of the NFL season baseball’s mythic World Series! Jeopardy!’s Ken Jennings is from Seattle, where the baseball season never extends into October, so he has plenty of time this month to take a swing at four popular misconceptions about four of the league’s most storied ballplayers.

The Debunker: Did Roger Maris’s Home Run Record Have an Official Asterisk?

It’s the punctuation mark so epic that Billy Crystal made an HBO movie about it. When the Yankees’ Roger Maris was on pace to best Babe Ruth’s 34-year-old single-season home run record, traditionalists sniffed that Maris was taking advantage of a modern 162-game season to do what Ruth had done in 154.

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Tuesday, October 08

The Debunker: Who Was the First Black Major League Ballplayer?

by Ken Jennings

To true American sports fans, October means only one thing: Weeks 5-8 of the NFL season baseball’s mythic World Series! Jeopardy!’s Ken Jennings is from Seattle, where the baseball season never extends into October, so he has plenty of time this month to take a swing at four popular misconceptions about four of the league’s most storied ballplayers.

The Debunker: Was Jackie Robinson the First African-American in the Major Leagues?

It’s hard to overstate Jackie Robinson’s achievement—and grace under pressure—when he made his major league debut during the 1947 season. Yes, Robinson broke a well-established “color barrier” in baseball, winning Rookie of the Year honors while putting up with racial abuse from opponents and teammates alike. He was the only black player in baseball at the time the Dodgers called him up, and that was no accident: despite the talent obviously available in the Negro Leagues, the major league teams (and players, and fans) had a deeply engrained “whites only” view of the game. But often Robinson’s achievement is inadvertently embellished, to claim he was the first African American player ever to play in the majors. And that’s not true.

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Tuesday, October 01

The Debunker: Who Was The "Baby Ruth" Candy Bar Named After?

by Ken Jennings

To true American sports fans, October means only one thing: Weeks 5-8 of the NFL season baseball’s mythic World Series! Thanks to its century-plus of bizarre rules and colorful characters, the history of major league baseball is plagued with more myth and misinformation than any other sport. (For example: Abner Doubleday, despite what you’ve heard, had nothing to do with its invention.) Jeopardy!’s Ken Jennings is from Seattle, where the baseball season never extends into October, so he has plenty of time this month to take a swing at four popular misconceptions about four of the league’s most storied ballplayers.

The Debunker: The “Baby Ruth” Candy Bar Was Named After President Cleveland's Daughter Ruth.

The Baby Ruth is a peanut/caramel/nougat chocolate bar beloved by American heroes from Hellboy to, uh, Sloth from Goonies. Since 1921, when the Curtiss Candy Company retooled its flagship Kandy Kake bar into the modern Baby Ruth, the company has straight-facedly denied that the name had anything to do with New York Yankees slugger George Herman “Babe” Ruth. Instead they claim (and trivia fans have long parroted) that the confection is actually named for Ruth Cleveland, the daughter of president Grover Cleveland.

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Tuesday, September 24

The Debunker: Were Gladiators Condemned With A "Thumbs Down"?

by Ken Jennings

September begins that time of the year when the months are all screwed up. Sept- means "seven," even though September is the ninth month. Ditto for Oct-ober (not the eighth), Nov-ember (not even close to the ninth) and Dec-ember (yada yada tenth month). It's all the Romans' fault, since they're the ones who threw off the count by adding January and February to the calendar around 150 BC. Ken Jennings sticks it to those toga-wearing troublemakers by debunking four bits of persistent malarkey about the Roman empire. Are you not entertained?!?

The Debunker: Were Gladiators Sentenced to Death with a “Thumbs Down”?

Do you like… movies about gladiators? A staple of the genre is the scene in which the crowd renders its verdict on the combat. If it’s thumbs-up, the bronzed, gleaming, sinewy muscleman lives to fight another day. Thumbs down, and he’s dog meat. In 1872, the French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme immortalized the scene in his painting Pollice Verso (“The Turned Thumb”, shown below) which cemented in the public’s mind the idea that thumbs-down = doom.

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Tuesday, September 17

The Debunker: What Went On in a Roman Vomitorium?

by Ken Jennings

September begins that time of the year when the months are all screwed up. Sept- means "seven," even though September is the ninth month. Ditto for Oct-ober (not the eighth), Nov-ember (not even close to the ninth) and Dec-ember (yada yada tenth month). It's all the Romans' fault, since they're the ones who threw off the count by adding January and February to the calendar around 150 BC. Ken Jennings sticks it to those toga-wearing troublemakers by debunking four bits of persistent malarkey about the Roman empire. Are you not entertained?!?

The Debunker: Did Ancient Romans Vomit in a Vomitorium?

In the popular imagination, the Romans were so debauched and hedonistic that they set aside a special room just for tossing one’s cookies at a banquet. I guess you’d be chowing down on grapes at a banquet when you’d start to notice you were feeling a little full, so you’d head out to the vomitorium, enjoy a refreshing Technicolor yawn, and then come back to the table for a second helping. We’re supposed to believe, I guess, that this was a common upper-class architectural feature, like listings for Roman houses were all “3 bd/2 bth/1 vm.” Uh, no. Let me clarify: Romans did vomit sometimes. And they did build buildings with vomitoria. But nobody ever vomited in a vomitorium. Not on purpose, anyway.

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Tuesday, September 10

The Debunker: What Were the Christians Doing in Rome's Catacombs?

by Ken Jennings

September begins that time of the year when the months are all screwed up. Sept- means "seven," even though September is the ninth month. Ditto for Oct-ober (not the eighth), Nov-ember (not even close to the ninth) and Dec-ember (yada yada tenth month). It's all the Romans' fault, since they're the ones who threw off the count by adding January and February to the calendar around 150 BC. Ken Jennings sticks it to those toga-wearing troublemakers by debunking four bits of persistent malarkey about the Roman empire. Are you not entertained?!?

The Debunker: Did Christians Hide from Persecution in Rome’s Catacombs?

In last week’s Debunker, we learned that Emperor Nero did not, in fact, fiddle while Rome burned. He did, however, seek to deflect responsibility for the fire by blaming it on a brand-new Roman religious cult: the Christians. In the years following the fire, Nero became the first great persecutor of the new faith, ordering many of its followers crucified, fed to dogs, or even (according to Tacitus) burned at Nero’s palace "to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired." Yikes.

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