Sports were big. Football occupied our young minds. The competitions of interest involved local high schools and Ivy League games broadcast on the radio and summarized at day’s end by Stan Lomax.
So was baseball. We all had our favorite teams, but our location steered us toward the New York Yankees, the New York Giants, or the Brooklyn Dodgers. There were 16 teams total, eight in the National League and eight in the American, none, I believe, west of the Mississippi. I was a Dodger fanatic and listened to every game I could, announced by Red Barber in the “catbird seat” and Vince Scully.
Jackie Robinson joined the team and created an uproar. I didn’t understand the fuss. Personally, I was delighted. He knew how to hit and steal bases, even home! That’s all I cared about.
Not too many years later the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles. It was a real blow, made worse by my realization that professional baseball wasn’t a game; it was a business. Once I discovered money drove professional sports, I lost interest in them and to this day I care not a whit about them. As money has come to dominate the college level, my interest there also has waned.
However, as I was growing up it wasn’t the professional sports that shaped my activities, it was the pickup games that fell into place when a critical mass of short guys got together. This was before the time of Little League and Pop Warner football with full uniforms and obnoxious parents.
It was a time that allowed the talented and the untalented to just have fun, often in East Orange’s streets, often with two on a team, or, on rare occasions, two on one team and one on the other. We’d be alert for cars and clear the street when one came.
One time a dog, not belonging to any of us, joined one of the teams. When we vacated the street for an oncoming vehicle, the dog didn’t get the message and was hit. The car stopped, a man emerged, and immediately started binding the hurt paw. Turned out he was a doctor. The dog’s owner had shown up by then, was grateful for the intervention, and offered the doctor money. He smiled, said he couldn’t take it, that if he did he’d be breaking the law for practicing medicine on other than a human. Nobody even considered the concept of a lawsuit.
While the street was fine for football and kick the can, basketball needed a net and baseball a space. Fortunately, a short bike ride brought us “athletes” to a playground with a basketball court and an easy fence climb granted entry to the local high school athletic field.
Nowadays highly organized sports teams exist for kids starting at an early age and extending to the teens. I have mixed feelings about them. In some ways I think they teach cooperation and collective spirit. In others I think they bring out the worst in some. Parents become fixated on winning.
For a couple of years I coached a “Cap League” baseball team. This was a pre Little League group. After every game, win or lose, we would supply some treat such as popsicles. Several parents chewed me out, saying their kids shouldn’t be rewarded for losing! These nine-year olds! Needless to say, I didn’t last long. Because of my desire to get out and the desire of others to just see me go.
I fear all the organization has eliminated too often the spontaneity of a pickup game when a few kids get together to have a good time. Maybe such activity still exists. I hope so.