Entry 347: Wide World of American Sports

With the World Cup upon us, it reminds me of when I was a kid in Queens, NY, and soccer did not exist.

Yeah, I know–all the kids today play soccer and lacrosse. But when I was growing up in the 60’s, I’m not even sure we had heard of soccer, and I think lacrosse got a mention in an American history book as a game Native Americans (who were Indians when I was in school) played. No one I knew–absolutely no one–played those games.

We played three sports: baseball, football and basketball. We knew about ice paddlehockey, but we didn’t play it, because it required things that weren’t readily available, like ice. And we didn’t belong to any private clubs, so we didn’t play golf or tennis because there was no place to play them. Sometimes we played paddleball with wooden rackets on a handball court.

With the exception of Little League baseball, which was limited to three months from April to June, none of our sports was organized. There were no adults involved in any way. There were no travel teams, no tournaments, no “drafts,” no car pools.  If you couldn’t get there by bicycle, you couldn’t play there.

Ball-Penn-Pinkie[1]Our sports were very adaptable.  You could adjust baseball for any number of players.  Only seven on a side? No hitting to right.  Only six?  Hitting team provides the catcher. A variation of baseball could be played with as few as two people, provided you had access to a schoolyard with a wall, a broomstick, some chalk and a Spalding or Pennsy Pinkie, which were hollow pink rubber balls. You could press them in with your fingers to create all sort of weird curves when you pitched them. You’d draw a strike zone on the wall, and hits were determined by how far you could smack a crazily spinning ball with a stick. Occasionally you’d hit one onto the roof of the school, and the other person would say “Nice shot,” and then you’d go home, because you only had the one ball.

Football was versatile, too. You could play with only three people, as long as one of them was willing to be “official quarterback” and swore to be an unbiased passer to the competing receivers who were running in and out between parked cars on the street.

But we’d have real games, too. A few phone calls could get a pick-up team from downspalding Conduit Avenue on the Brooklyn side of the border to show up for a game of hardball at one of the fields that was otherwise abandoned for the summer. We’d have double and even triple headers, playing until it got dark or until too many of us had to be home for dinner.

Until we all dispersed for college, we had a standing no-equipment tackle football game on Sunday mornings. We played on a stretch of grass below Cross Bay Boulevard, with cars whizzing by just beyond the sideline. Yes, you are correct: we were idiots. I’m sure those games planted the seeds for many future knee replacement surgeries.

We policed our own games. There were no umpires, no referees. In baseball, someone from the team that was up would stand behind the pitcher calling balls and strikes, mostly with an amazing degree of fairness. You’d actually see kids arguing with their own teammates about blown calls. In basketball, the players would just yell out when there was a foul. We only recognized two indiscretions anyway: walking, which was when someone forgot to dribble, and “hacking,” which was when someone forgot it was a no-contact sport.

stickbl1s[1]But those days are gone. I get it. Everything now is organized, scheduled, and fully equipped. Lacrosse and soccer are as American as maize and shepherds pie. But I’ve never played them and I still can’t watch them. To me, those two sports, as well as hockey and even, to some extent, professional basketball, are all variations on a theme: a bunch of people moving to and fro between two goals. Each one provides its players with a limitation: you have to bounce the ball; you have to play on a slippery surface; you have to use these basket thingies; you can’t use your hands. Otherwise, they seem like the same games: back and forth, back and forth.

Sure, a viewer can appreciate the athleticism of basketball, the graceful footwork of soccer, the stamina of lacrosse, and the Canadian accents of hockey.  But there’s no time for strategizing, no pauses when a fan can yell in a play to the coach or manager, no breaks for animated discussions about the DH or the wildcat or just how horrible a particular player is.

In other words, there is no room for audience participation, which is pretty much the only type of participation I can handle these days.

I know that the pace of baseball and football is sometimes criticized. Yes, it’s true that you can watch an entire DVR’d sitcom in less time than it takes to play one half inning, and when an NFL game reaches the two minute warning, you likely still have time to get a pizza delivered before it’s over..

But there’s thinking involved, damn it. There’s more to it than incredibly fit human beings chasing moving objects and propelling them towards receptacles of some sort.

And I realize that my disdain for lacrosse and soccer puts me in the minority, certainly in the world, and maybe even in the U.S. My nephews grew up playing those sports mostly to the exclusion of baseball, and these days they root fervently for two teams that do not even play in this country. On the other hand, given the kind of brilliant summer day on which we used to play two, they’d just as soon play eighteen.

What’s my point? I’m not sure, really. Maybe I’m against globalization. Maybe I’m against progress. Maybe I’m against modern childhood. Or maybe I’m just against sports that require more coordination than I ever had.

See you soon.

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42 Responses to Entry 347: Wide World of American Sports

  1. Douglas says:

    Hey. Thanks for the blog post. I grew up in Africa and we played what you call soccer and we call football all the time. But don’t think you are alone. Modern ‘soccer’ is not the real thing anymore. You say you know people who support teams that are not even in your / their country. In the old days people supported their local teams. Now I live in Malawi again and and the day I went to see Malawi ‘s international team in an important international my Malawian friends of course could not go because they had to stay and watch their English team on the telly! What ‘s happenin? So I ‘ll join you in your grumble about the modern game even though I am from ‘the other side’.

  2. Hey good blog markhal !!
    Love tennis too !!

    Julien from paris

  3. judetomejr says:

    Reblogged this on judebuynsaletome and commented:

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  7. We got some cool soccer video games for you

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  9. velvetmp says:

    That’s great. Thank you!
    As a girl ( woman now obvi) we played tag, army, freeze tag, jump rope and always found someone to play with and knew when the street lights came on it was time to get home.

  10. Michael Bennett says:

    I think for you Americans (who seem to be the only people who don’t get ‘soccer’), you need a trip to a big football country – Brazil or England. You talk about the mini-versions of baseball and American Football: there are hundreds of mini-soccer games too, you’re just not in the place to find them being played.

    ‘Soccer’ (I hate that word!!) does have a lot of tactics. If you watch managers like Jose Mourinho – they are masters of the tactical side of things. If you watch a 2011 Barcelona match, you will see the intricacies of their formations and ‘game-plans’. However, the game was without managers for hundreds of years and the idea of the players working out their own ideas is still fundamental.

    I played American Football for three years in England – I even got half a scholarship in Tennessee – but nothing will ever replace football. Especially American sports whose finals always involves the word “World Champions”! 🙂

  11. packsandroid says:

    thaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaanx Beautiful

  12. Christina says:

    you lost me at “there’s thinking involved” <- when it comes to american football and baseball. but then again, i'm a huge soccer fan.

    • markhal says:

      One thing you have to understand in the case of American football: there IS thinking involved, but only until you get too many concussions.

  13. dcmontreal says:

    Great post. As one who grew up during the same era much of what you write strikes a note with me. But growing up in Montreal we managed to play hockey with and without ice. Ball hockey, now called road hockey, was played year round with a tennis ball and old hockey sticks. You didn’t have a true Candian boyhood unless you’d experienced a cold wet tennis ball in the choir buttons in below zero temperatures.

    • markhal says:

      I don’t know if it’s strictly a Canadian term, but “choir buttons” is just about the best term for that I’ve ever heard! (Assuming, of course, you are referring to what I think you are referring to.)

  14. I disagree with much if this post, but I’ll leave only one comment. My dad grew up in the 1950s and he played lacrosse. ‘Nuff said.

  15. magnocrat says:

    We dare not get serious about the world but we can get serious about sport.

  16. Reblogged this on philjmorrison and commented:
    Funny and true.

  17. Melvin Yap says:

    Reblogged this on The Surface Web in Singapore and commented:
    Chuckle at this while we wait for the next live match! woots

  18. tschiav11 says:

    Americans don’t like soccer simply because it’s more of a waiting game. It’s in the same boat as hockey in America. The US as a society like to see “instant results” whether that’s goals, big hits or home runs, and soccer and hockey don’t provide that for fans. In either sport you can go hours without any of this instant gratification that US fans desire.

    Baseball is also struggling with this post steroid era since players aren’t jacking out home runs like they use to anymore.

    The major reason why football is so popular among US fans is because they received the instant results they desire. It is big hitting, high scoring game where there’s action almost every play.

    Another reason why soccer isn’t as popular in the US is because of the strict rules and security in US stadiums. Fans can’t get rowdy or chant obscurities without getting kicked out of stadiums. So the atmosphere is completely different compared to European stadiums.

    • markhal says:

      So, to your last paragraph, you’re saying soccer isn’t as popular in the US because there aren’t enough spectator injuries? 🙂

      • tschiav11 says:

        Having a good atmosphere at a stadium doesn’t mean there needs to be spectator injuries. The injuries usually occur because some stupid fan decides to talk trash about the team/stadium they’re in. And in that case they deserve to be injured. That’s like running with the bulls and hoping not to get hurt. Just plain stupid.

  19. Mrs. R says:

    Soccer has been in existence for a very long time, I grew up watching, living and breathing “futbol”. Of course, I guess it all depends on where you live and who lives around you.

    I do understand your point though, I remember living cellphone free, limited technology(Atari anyone?) and a happy childhood. Times have changed and now teenagers text so much that it makes me wonder if they can actually talk.

  20. 5760minutes says:

    I appreciate the read. However, this comes on the eve of a huge day tomorrow. Please stand behind our U.S. Men’s “Soccer” Team!


  21. Great post! It’s so refreshing to hear a perspective that goes against the mainstream. It’s so easy for people to say, do and act the same nowadays and so hard for people to be different. Thanks for the post and your real opinion

  22. Great post, except for one thing you:
    You failed to mention Skellsies! Granted, only a native NY (and inner city kid) would have a clue what you were talking about:

    The one-gallon-milk bottle caps, filled with clay (or, ACK..playdoh) made for the best drag-to-glide ratio. A stick of chalk to draw the playing board (in case your neighborhood park or dead-end street lacked a painted-on one) and you and your playmates were in business.

    Sure, by the time we had grown up to venture away from the monkey-bars, we had developed more athletic pursuits (like those mentioned in your post), but no trip down memory lane (by way of L.E.S Manhattan) is complete without a detour to this chalk & asphalt past-time..


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