Sport

We have reached the time of year when we face crises galore, when many people become passionate about trivial events, when one’s emotions are strained, where hard feelings are generated and superiority is established, when detailed analysis of events dominates much of the public discussion and arguments—even fisticuffs—are motivated by events that in reality have only passing impact on our daily lives.

It’s World Series time in baseball. College football fans are starting to evaluate the value of life on the basis of bowl eligibility.  Pro football fans bemoan the one misplay that dooms the home team or keeps a Super Bowl dream alive.  Pro basketball and hockey fans already are agonizing over or exulting about the puck or the ball that barely missed the net—or got into it at the last second.   College basketball fans soon will cheer the home team in its quest for the post-season or demonstrate their hate for a traditional rival.  In fact, Missouri has (be still my beating heart!) played Kansas in a basketball game!

This is the time of year when games don’t end when the clock or the innings or the quarters run out.  It’s a time when we forget these are only games that have their most meaning during the time they are played. The world will not be more peaceful and safe because they were played.  Homeless people will still live in boxes or in doorways.  Children will still starve and die in desperate circumstances.

We were reminded of those sentiments recently when we re-discovered one of our favorite sports books that puts all of this in perspective.   It’s Heywood Hale Broun’s Tumultuous Merriment, which came out in 1979, a memoir of the decade he spent as a “color commentator” for CBS Sports.  A better word probably is “essayist.”   He was, in our memory, the sports counterpart to Charles Kuralt, the other CBS correspondent on the road. He was the fellow with the great moustache and the colorful sport coat who always saw sports with more perceptive eyes that did not focus on the final outcome.

If you remember him and/or you have some qualms about the value of sports in general and big-time sport in particular, you might want to search out a copy of this book.

Broun began his book with a definition of “sport” from Samuel Johnson’s eighteen-century dictionary: Play; diversion; games; frolick and tumultuous merriment and then asks, “Who now, save an occasional small child, regards sport as diversion or as tumultuous merriment? How much frolick is there in the Ohio State-Michigan game, the modern Olympics, the Little League championship of a crossroads country town?”

He says it is “somber tosh” to explain play as a way to serve wish-fulfillment, or a way to work off hostility, or a way to burn off excess energy, or something that “builds character, creates a healthy moral climate, builds bonds of fellowship, and gives a chance to earn big money with the pros.”

Coaches, he wrote, dare not admit they are just teaching a diversion.  To avoid being paid like English professors, they must “pose as saviors of youth, muscular alchemists who can take the base metal of bad boys and produce golden lads, saints who can block and shoot baskets.”

“It is to our discredit that we swallow all this stuff,” he wrote.  And he had no patience with those who cited the Duke of Wellington’s contention that the Battle of Waterloo had been won  on the playing fields of Eton.  Better, he argued, to remember what the Duke said as he watched troops whose preparation for war had consisted of playing rugby and cricket: “I don’t know if they frighten Napoleon, but by God, they frighten me!”

Broun charges our games “ruthlessly” root fun out of our games “lest it soften our fiber.”  But he says fun need not disappear as the stakes increase and tension grows.  After all, he says, our games are not open heart surgery—where there is real tension and the stakes are really high.

“We are only grotesque when we apply the standards suitable to the gladiator to our Little League children,” he wrote. “It is unfair to make them the surrogates of our flab-shackled daydreams.”

He did not begrudge the high salaries paid to the professionals by the corporations that own their teams but he finds the talk of money turns the athlete and his agent into dullards and he wonders why he even cares whether they win or lose.   Broun said he could get the same kind of behavior at a sales convention.

“After all, one game is not really more important than another in the cosmic scheme of things,” he wrote. “But it’s wonderful fun to pretend and we all have expended a lot of pretense on the Super Bowls, the World Series, the Triple Crown and football games like Yale-Harvard, Oho State-Michigan, or Texas-Oklahoma.”

Broun notes that “small children, more than their elders, demand a structure of immutable rules in their games” regardless of where the games are played. The rules are made up to fit the circumstances, but the rules must be followed.  And that, he says, is why we are fascinated by games. “They are the only activities of life where the rules are, metaphorically or actually, written on the top of the box.”  Life, on the other hand, is a place where the rules quickly can change for a participant, which is why we find relief to “escape into the small, known, well-defined structure of a game.”

“We agree, for the time we play it at least, to its importance, and everything else is lost in the shadows behind the sidelines,” he wrote.  Cheating only thrusts the participant back into the uncertainty of the real world.  “If winning is overwhelmingly important, and is the only reason for playing, we must break the ‘rule’ if no one is looking, or bend it if someone is.”

Broun discovered a game that he thought represented the purity that “sport” in its truest form should be while covering a story at the D. D. Palmer College of Chiropracty in Davenport, Iowa: Rugby.  Perhaps, he reasoned, the game’s lack of the “war game precision” of football that left spectators unable to have strategic discussions about why a team won or lost, and who was responsible, is why rugby has never caught on here. “What rugby does provide,” he wrote, “is an immense amount of pleasure to its players…The air is always filled with fiercely happy cries as the packed scrum into which the ball is dropped dissolves into a thirty-man whirlpool.

“For all the talk of American coaches about team effort, it is possible in sports like football and baseball to put the blame for a loss on an individual, the man who struck out with the bases loaded, dropped a fly ball in the ninth, couldn’t hold a pass, missed a crucial kick. In true team sports like rugby this finger-pointing is a lot more difficult, which is why I found the players at Palmer, scab-nosed to a man, full of good cheer after bashing about on a cold and muddy day.”

He reminds us:

“The actual importance of the contest is immaterial to both spectators and players once the period of magic has begun.  The level of excitement is subconsciously chosen by those present and after a time exists beyond their control…All of us should play as if life and honor depended on it, and all of us should cheer as if it were Lucifer State versus Angel U. in the arena; but at game’s end all of us should recognize that paradise was neither won nor lost. None of us should emulate those middle-aged men who stare glumly into the bottom of a highball glass when they think of a shot that failed to drop in the last second of some long-ago basketball game…

“Let it not be said, although I’m afraid it will, that young men are preparing for a stern world where mistakes are not forgotten, and that they should have a stern preparation for that world.

Sport is a preparation for more sport and not a businessmen’s ROTC…You can’t tackle economics or block logistics.

“Boys and girls, men and women, can all be distorted by the philosophies that use games to grotesque ends…A coach is not a priest. Games are not life. There is no authority save the Rule, which all players have agreed on, and there is no fun like playing a game for the sake of a game.”

Broun died in 2001.  He was 83.

We’re not sure if his words are any more useful or meaningful in shaping the world of sport and the public’s attitude toward it today than they were in 1979.  Or even whether there is some wisdom in them for the game of politics.

But then again, “There is no authority save the Rule,” and we risk a lot when we decide on or off the playing field that The Rule is expendable.

(Photo credits: paulikreport.com)

Heywood Hale Broun, Tumultuous Merriment, New York, Richard Marek Publishers, 1979

Signs of our times

Two geezers were having lunch the other day at a local restaurant/craft beer emporium and the conversation turned to the Five Man Electrical Band.   Right away, you know these two brilliant conversationalists had to be geezers because they immediately remembered the group’s biggest hit, Signs, which reached number three on the Billboard chart in 1971.

Metrolyrics has this version of the lyrics (which we are using because it cleaned up one line):

And the sign said “Long-haired freaky people need not apply” So I tucked my hair up under my hat and I went in to ask him why He said “You look like a fine upstanding young man, I think you’ll do” So I took off my hat, I said “Imagine that. Huh! Me workin’ for you!” Whoa-oh-oh

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

And the sign said anybody caught trespassin’ would be shot on sight So I jumped on the fence and-a yelled at the house “Hey! What gives you the right?” “To put up a fence to keep me out or to keep mother nature in” “If God was here he’d tell you to your face, man, you’re some kinda sinner”

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

Now, hey you, mister, can’t you read? You’ve got to have a shirt and tie to get a seat You can’t even watch, no you can’t eat You ain’t supposed to be here The sign said you got to have a membership card to get inside Ugh

And the sign said, “Everybody welcome. Come in, kneel down and pray” But when they passed around the plate at the end of it all I didn’t have a penny to pay So I got me a pen and a paper and I made up my own little sign I said, “Thank you, Lord, for thinkin’ ’bout me. I’m alive and doin’ fine” Woo

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign

Five Man Electrical Band—uh—disbanded (add that to the list of old jokes such as “Old doctors never die, they just lose their patients,” and other puns about the ends of careers) in 1975, so you know that these two guys still without hearing aids but still WITH most of their teeth, quit being young in every place but their own minds a long time ago.

One geezer hauled out his pocket encyclopedia/camera, a device usually marketed as a telephone but which he seldom uses that way, and showed the other geezer a picture he took of a sign at a tourist junk shop in Limon, Colorado a few days earlier and suggested there are many venues where this sign should be posted:

Both geezers reflect that the sign is highly reminiscent of the four-way test of the civic organization, Rotary International, which is:

Is it TRUTH? Is it FAIR to all concerned? Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS? Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

But then, Geezer one did the two-fingery thing on the encyclopedia/camera screen to widen out the image to show two other signs on either side of the “Think” sign.  The expanded image seems to capture the contradictions in our social dialogue, which too often take the shape of individual diaTRIBE.

To save you the trouble of doing your own two-fingery thing to expand the image, we’ll tell you that the sign on the left says, “If you can read this you are in range,” and shows an apparent double-barreled shotgun, and the sign on the right says “The average response time of a 911 call is 23 minutes. The response time of a .357 is 1400 feet per second.”

The other two signs might be true and helpful—somehow. We suspect they are seldom necessary. They aren’t real inspiring except in a pretty anti-social sort of a way.  And forget about kindness.  But in years to come they will provide fodder for sociologists, psychiatrists and other “ists” studying the American mind in the late Twentieth and early Twenty-first Centuries.

Geezer One saw another sign a few days earlier at Dot’s Diner, a sandwich place in Nederland, Colorado—a few miles above Boulder—where the proprietors think the music of the Grateful Dead is appropriate background for a meal.  The sign wasn’t mean or threatening.  It just asked people to respect other diners who were having their sandwich with a Touch of Grey, or their omelet with Sugar Magnolia.

Maybe Geezer One was just feeling mellow during his lunch because he’d just ridden a pig on the 1909 restored carousel that is Nederland’s biggest attraction.  A fellow named Scott Harrison had rescued the carousel from the scrap heap and had spent more than twenty-five years carving all of the creatures for it.  The Carousel of Joy, it’s called.  And you are NOT too old to enjoy riding it and listening to the original Wurlitzer mechanical band organ as you go.

The discussion reminded one of the geezers of the kindly little signs that vanished from our roads about the time the interstate highway system came along.  The last Burma-Shave signs went up in 1963.  You might find a few in museums here and there today.  Some thought they were distractions to drivers and made the two-lane roads they populated less safe.  But now in these days with the pleas for drivers to ignore the distractions of Facebook, or Twitter, or the telephone itself—-at the same time that cars all have video screens in the middle of the dash loaded with all kinds of information—the concerns about Burma-Shave signs seem mild.

Some of the signs, in fact, promoted highway safety.  Frank Rowsome, Jr., put out a little book in 1965 that contained all of those messages, The Verse By the Side of the Road.  It has all of them, including the first ones in 1927. All had the company name at the end of each series and most promoted using the product when you were shaving with a blade.  But some were highway safety messages:

Don’t Lose/Your Head/To Gain a Minute/You Need Your Head/Your Brains Are In It

Or:

Dim Your Lights/Behind A Car/Let Folks See/How Bright You Are.

Then there was:

Thirty Days/Hath September/April/June And The/Speed Offender 

Would signs like those do as much good, or more good, on our highways than the electric signs telling us how many fatalities we’ve had each month, or reminding us to buckle up?   Or maybe they’d make some good light-hearted but meaningful reminders.  And monotony-breaking moments on the crowded, straight-as-a-string interstates.

Perhaps something such as:

Buckle Up/Don’t Be Silly/Don’t Be Under/A Stone With/ ACarved Lilly/MODOT.

If you have some Burma-Shave inspired signs that you think would be useful for MODOT, or that would meet the four-way test for general civil discussion, send them along in the “comments” section below.  If they meet our standards of civility (as we outline on this page) we’ll post them.  And then you can tell your friends YOU are a published poet!  A Roadside Laureate!

(Burma Shave sign image by G. D. Carrington)

Walls, doors, and a big creepy thing: Notes from the road, June edition

We’ve been on the road, observing places and meeting people, poring over old newspapers, talking to groups, reading things.  Stuff like that.  It’s good to get away from the political center of things for a while.

Spoke to a convention of state geologists in Branson the other day.  Never talked before to so many people with rocks in their heads.

For those who think there’s never anything new, we offer this note from the Jefferson City Capital News of September 11, 1910:

“The government is planning to build the longest fence ever constructed in the world.  It will extend from El Paso, Texas to the Pacific coast, more than 1,000 miles and will divide the United States and Mexico.  The fence will be of barbed wire.  Work will begin in a few weeks.”

Speaking of walls, we were looking through a recent edition of Archaeology magazine and its article on Hadrian’s Wall, the wall built by Roman Emperor Guess Who.   Trivia question:  How many miles long was (is) Hadrian’s Wall?

The Great Wall of China is 5,500.3 miles long.  Just saying it is impressive.  But let’s put it another way.  If the Great Wall of China were straightened into one segment and moved to the western city limits of Jefferson City and we started driving on it toward China, we would be able to get 82% of the way there

Hadrian’s wall would stretch from Jefferson City to Lamonte (between JC and Knob Noster).  73 miles.

Here’s a nice place to eat in Cape Girardeau.  But it would not be wise to become too enamored of its fine adult beverages while you are there and wait until your bladder was sending such urgent messages that you don’t have time to read some signs and your mind is no longer agile enough to understand them.

Katy O’Neill’s Public House in historic downtown Cape, is at the bottom of a hill. If you go there and your thinking is not as acute as it was before you began to socialize, make sure you read and comprehend the signs.

(They’ll get bigger if you click on them, at least here)

We do wonder, however, why it’s not still St. Patrick’s Day in both rooms.

—–

We’ve checked out the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art on Bentonville, Arkansas.  We were told that some of the snooty art folks on the east and west coasts have their noses out of joint because Alice Walton, who dreamed up this place, had the nerve to keep so much great art out here in flyover country, and particularly in such a Podunk place as Bentonville.  We were reminded of a comment made by Dr. John Pickard (for whom Pickard Hall is named at the University of Missouri), the chairman of the commission that hired the artists to decorate the capitol.  He complained that lot of eastern artists weren’t big enough to see over the Allegheny Mountains.  This was in the days well before we were flyover country.  But Doc P. and Alice W. had it right.

We recommend a trip to Crystal Bridges which is, itself, a work of art.  And it has a very nice restaurant.  If you are a little jittery about arachnids, you might want to close your eyes and have someone lead you into the museum….

The sculpture is by Louise Bourgeois and it’s called “Maman.”  Linda DeBerry, writing for the Crystal Bridges website, says the thirty-foot-tall spider carrying 26 marble eggs is a tribute to her mother.  After you get over your initial shudder at that thought, understand that, as DeBerry writes Bourgeois claimed “The spider…was not an ominous or frightening figure, but rather a representation of the protection and industry of her own beloved mother, who repaired tapestry for a living and died when the artist was 21.” Bourgeois said, “The spider is a repairer. If you bash into the web of a spider, she doesn’t get mad. She weaves and repairs it.”

Uhhh-huh.

Hold up your hand if you ever thought of YOUR mother this way.

Spider-mom aside, don’t be afraid to go to the Crystal Bridges museum.  It’s spectacular.  You are likely to spend enough time looking at the art and sculpture in the museum’s galleries—and at the Frank Lloyd Wright house that was moved there piece-by-piece that you’ll need lunch or dinner. We thought the food was good.  And before you leave town, fill up the car at a gas station in Bentonville.  It was a buck-98 the day we were there, seventeen cents less than the stations in Jefferson City, where gas prices tend to be suspiciously high most of the time.

Bentonville is an okay place.  Pretty much a company town, as is Jefferson City.

Chatting at the Y the other day about baseball’s desire to shorten the games.  Curtailing visits to the pitcher’s mound.  Requiring pitchers to throw the ball in a certain amount of time.  How about restricting the number of adjustments to batting gloves?  Limiting the amount of time batters can excavate a place for their back foot?

All of that is just playing games with the game. Here’s what would shorten games: Limiting the number of commercials between innings.  And during pitching changes.

Not likely to happen, of course.  The Game, whether it’s baseball or basketball or football—any game that is not continuous, long ago abdicated its right to its own clock when it decided to accept big broadcasting fees.

I think I just nibbled a little bit on the hand that used to feed me.

Didn’t get to see any of the Congressional baseball game on the in-room teevee while we were gone.  Wonder if the Cardinals had any scouts in the audience looking for bullpen help.

Who has left the stadium

No, there’s no question mark.  It’s a statement, not an inquiry.

I became worried as baseball’s spring training neared its end and fairly concerned when opening day arrived.  So, finally, I asked a friend at Downtown Book plus Toy if they had seen it.   Nope.  They handle so many books and magazines they hadn’t missed it. But I sure did.  So they tried to order it for me.

It’s not going to come in.  Maybe it’ll never be back.

And baseball won’t be the same.

One of the signs that winter can’t last forever has been the appearance on the magazine rack of my local book store of the red-covered annual publication with baseball players on the front and the team picture of the World Series winner on the back.  Who’s Who in Baseball, a publication letting readers immerse themselves in the career statistics of just about all the guys who put on major league uniforms each year, has gone away.

The months of February, March, and early April had a big hole in them this year for people who love baseball.  During those last dark days of winter and through those first tantalizing days of early spring, baseball fans could immerse themselves in seeing who was close to a milestone.  Could somebody get to their 600th home run this year?   Or their 300th win as a pitcher?  Is there any pitcher close to 3,000 strikeouts?  In today’s home-run culture, how many guys have 300 or 400 stolen bases?  Who was traded for who in 1999?  What was the last year that aging pitcher had a winning record or a respectable ERA?  Who’s Who in Baseball was the annual hint that better days were coming even if you rooted for a team you knew was probably going to be one of the worst.  Now, apparently, it’s gone.  And at this house, baseball season is a little bit incomplete.

Maybe we should blame the Chicago Cubs.  Who’s Who in Baseball began four years after the Cubs won the World Series in 1908.  Could it be that the possibility of putting a picture of the Cubs on the back cover of the publication was just more than the publishers could bear?  Is publication death preferable to admitting the Cubs won the World Series?

Here’s what happened.

Last spring, about the time the 2016 season was starting, Harris Publications shut down. It’s official farewell statement talked about the struggles the magazine industry has had “in the face of the rapid ascendance of digital media, changing consumer content preferences, magazine wholesaler struggles and consolidation in the supply chain. We have tried mightily to persevere against these forces, but have been unable to overcome these challenges.”

Last July, the assets of Harris Publications, including rights to seventy-four titles, were acquired by Athlon Media Group. That doesn’t mean those titles will survive. A company spokesman didn’t hold out much hope for Who’s Who in Baseball or many of the other Harris titles after the acquisition by putting out this statement:

“We’ll continue to evolve our content from print centric platforms into over-the-top (OTT) media to gain knowledge and strength in visual platforms. Vertical titles, such as Harris Publications, are a perfect venue for this space.”

Yeah, whatever.

Fact is, we can go to the internet and look up all kinds of stats on any player past or present.  But there’s something about browsing through a print version of WWIB as some call it (we think it’s kind of sacrilegious) just to see what catches the eye.  “Browse” shows up on web pages sometimes but it’s just not the same with a tablet or a smartphone.  At least not to this writer’s generation.  But this writer’s generation is kind of like the dinosaurs after the big meteor hit, aren’t we?

The oldest edition in my collection includes a player whose career began in 1942.  It includes people such as Hoyt Wilhelm, Robin Roberts, Warren Spahn, Vic Davalillo, Mike Cuellar, Dick Hall, and Gaylord Perry.  Leafing through those old editions brings these guys back to life, back to a time when they were throwing smoke and spitters and dashing about the base paths and the outfields.  There’s something about looking at their stats when they were our heroes.

But it’s gone now.

February and March are going to seem a little colder from now on.