Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Athletics in Grade School

First, as an aside, an update: Johanna is well and doing fine. As am I and our three nincompoop dogs. Thanks to our friends and the doctors and nurses.
Next, on to more important issues. In Wenonah there were three kinds of athletics in elementary school: Organized sports, like Minor League or Pony League or Babe Ruth League baseball. School sports, like softball or touch football or dodge ball. And our own disorganized sports, like our Olympic Games around the block or golf in the back yard, or wiffleball, or street football. Each type had its own odd conventions and values.
Let's start with organized sports. When I was young all there was in Wenonah was hardball. You started in Minor League ball, moved up to Pony League and thence to Babe Ruth League. A few gifted young men went on to play American Legion Ball. This was a kind of semi-pro hardball with actual stakes. Each league consisted of one team from several neighboring towns and games were played twice a week, either home or away. Wenonah's baseball field was wonderful, with actual dugouts. It had once been the field for the Wenonah Military Academy in the twenties and so was pretty much regulation. No fences though. Right field was the railroad tracks and left and half of center were wooded. But it was a good 325 to any boundary so not many people banged one that far.
Back in the day you weren't put on the field to boost your self esteem. You were put in the game based on your abilities. If you sucked you went in in the 9th inning. That was if we were winning. I played a couple games a year and got one or two at bats. No hits. Several missed flies. I was always in right field which was a blessing because nobody could hit there except southpaws and no one was a southpaw till Pony League.
At the end of the season, in the fall, we would have a banquet to honor the Most Valuable Player, the Most Improved Player, etc in all the various leagues. We went with our dads and wore suits or sport coats. At the end of the awards and the dinner there was an inspirational talk by a professional athlete. I remember Tom Brookshire but that's about it. They weren't too inspirational but we had seen them on tv and they autographed our programs. Most of these athletes had regular jobs so this was a quick $200 bucks for one night. A lot of money back then.
School sports were just stupid. Rarely enjoyable and never allowed to be played to their conclusion. The only time it was fun was when we played touch football or soccer in the snow. That was a gas. Otherwise you'd play for a very brief time and then back to numbers and books all hot and sweaty.
Disorganized sports were our metier. We developed 18 hole courses in our backyards. I remember excelling at chip shots over the garage roof in particular. We played hour upon hour of street football. Everyone, everywhere, knows that gig. Ten steps, cut behind the Cadillac and I'll hit you. Chris you go long. All day long.
We played dozens of games. Workies Up, Horse, you name it, we played it. We invented our own version of the Olympics with everything from the 100 yard dash to pole vaulting (a failed experiment involving bamboo poles). High jumping was done over yard fences, etc.
The odd thing was that I learned from all of them. I actually became okay at hardball. I learned fundamentals even though I rarely played. I learned strategy and good sportsmanship and how to razz the opposing pitcher. I learned how to have fun playing our sports. Hell, I even developed a fairly good golf swing. Years later, never having actually ventured on a course, I had to play for business. My first drive on a real golf course went 200 yards, dead straight, off the tee. Not too shabby.
Playing was serious business for us. So serious that we played from sun up to sundown with no let up. So serious that we played with bloody knees and lips and elbows. So serious I would run the 100 yard dash again and again and again till my asthma was so bad I had to take my meds and lay in my bed and cry because I couldn't run again. It was as serious as work. Sometimes it was fun.


Jim Maddox said...

I didn't play organized ball until my teens. I was talked into joining the Woodbury Heights Babe Ruth team. I was a good ball player if it was for fun, but somehow wearing uniforms and having people expecting something of you intimidated me. I was condemned to the purgatory of right field as well. My first season I could hit, but my fielding was awful. The second season I worked on my fielding so hard that I could catch anything, but i couldn't hit a thing. I remember sitting in the Wenonah dugout and marveling at how "professional" it all seemed. We lost almost every game, and it wasn't fun at all.

carey said...

And I played softball for your dad with Patty Condell and Elsa Olimski and I don't remember who else. No cleats then for girls...we wore cutoff shorts (and they were short!) tube socks and a good polyester Wenonah shirt, not the crap t-shirts kids get now.

Needless to say, I must've enjoyed playing, because I still do, nearly 40 years later!

We had Larry Bowa speak at our banquet one year. Yawn.