PUNDIT OFF BASE
After seeing a British movie, This Sporting Life, Russell Baker of The New York Times has been moved to make some observations on what he calls "the corrupting influence of professional sports." Fans, it seems, are persons with a vicarious "need to crack skulls and smash noses." (They watch football and boxing, don't they?) He finds a "distortion of values" in the fact that heavyweight champions are paid so handsomely and that Joe Namath has signed a $400,000 contract with the New York Jets. If a man spent New Year's Day watching bowl games on TV he was acting "in disregard of family life."
Ah, but this is not all. "The perverse ethics of commercial sports have even begun to infect the area of government," says Baker, citing the deposition of Charles Halleck as Republican leader of the House of Representatives and finding in it a parallel with the firing of Yogi Berra after the Yankees lost the World Series. Halleck was on a losing team, too, you see. (In defense of baseball's good name, we must note that Berra would have been fired even if the Yanks had won the Series.) And it was "commercial" of President Johnson—here the connection with sport becomes remote—to address a joint session of Congress at 9 p.m. E.S.T. "for maximum fan exposure on TV."
As a sports magazine, we know our place and would not presume to comment on politics. We feel that Russell Baker, a writer of wit and competence in the political field, should similarly shun the corrupting influence of sports and contemplate only the sweetness and light of politics, though he may, if he chooses, come out firmly against the custom of having the President of the United States throw out the first ball to start the baseball season.
January 18, 1965
IN BASEBALL IT'S BUSH
As the National Basketball Association schedule approached the All-Star Game break, Wilt Chamberlain was dunking and banking shots at a 39.6 point pace, virtually assuring him of his sixth consecutive scoring crown. Nevertheless, San Francisco's 7-foot-1 center was unhappy, and this led to an unseemly row with Sid Borgia, the NBA's supervisor of referees. The league's officiating, said Chamberlain, is "atrocious." Borgia's counterpunch: "If our officiating was as atrocious as Wilt's foul shooting [a dismal 42% this season] we'd have all been fired 10 years ago.
"If Wilt was six inches shorter," Borgia went on, "you wouldn't even know about him. He might not even be in the NBA. And he'd be a pauper instead of a millionaire."
And so on. Chamberlain would seem to have little reason to complain about officiating. In more than 460 games, he is the only veteran player who has yet to foul out. But that is beside the point. No organized sport should tolerate such public controversy between an official and a player. In baseball, fines would be levied and heads would roll.
More than a decade ago one of the most esteemed men of skiing, Britain's Sir Arnold Lunn, saw a crisis developing. "The tendency to regard speed on the piste [packed slope] as the ultimate criterion of skiing skill is irrational and wholly mischievous in its influence on the development of the sport," he wrote. Sir Arnold's fears were realized. The removal of natural obstacles and the quest for speed in Alpine racing accelerated. Last week another influential man said it was high time for a change. The man is Marc Hodler, Swiss president of the International Ski Federation, and among his sweeping proposals are these: changing downhill racing courses from present sheer-speed runs down partly wooded slopes to slower open slopes with obstacles to test the racers' versatility; reducing the thicket of slalom gates to "lead slalom back where it started from—as a forest downhill run around the trees"; and discarding the seed-and-draw system in slalom racing (under which only the first dozen or so starters have any real chance of winning) in favor of an event run with elimination heats, as in track and field. Bravo, Mr. Hodler; it is high time.
To the people of France, according to a poll just reported by L'Express of Paris, the most important event of 1964 was not the ouster of Nikita Khrushchev (that placed a mere second), nor General de Gaulle's trip to South America (third), nor the Ecumenical Council (fourth). It was the Olympic Games.
An observer on the scene advises that the result of the poll was not so astonishing as it might seem, considering the current passion for sports throughout Europe, not just France. "I think," he said, "that young people are going in for new sports, are giving up wine for glory."
Which is, after all, in the Olympic spirit.
THE QUIET MAN
Everyone, especially in Britain, treasures the image of a cleric with eccentricity or genius concealed beneath his ecclesiastical robes. Greatly beloved in fiction was G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown, the detective. The Rev. Sydney Smith existed in fact, not fiction, and was the most famous wit in the English language next to Oscar Wilde. (His idea of heaven was "eating p√¢tés de foie gras to the sound of trumpets.") Now, to their delight, Britons have discovered the Rev. Kenneth Wade, the Dean of Bocking.
The dean is 50 years old and stands a mere 5 feet 3 inches. He looks harmless enough. At 1 a.m. recently he came upon a young intruder, more than 6 feet tall, lurking in the bushes of his deanery. Asked what he was doing, the intruder leaped at the dean, who threw the ruffian over his head, dislocating the fellow's shoulder.
"I could have broken his shoulder, had I wished," the dean said, "because judo teaches you how to do that. I thought, however, dislocation would be enough punishment."
It was the intruder's misfortune that Wade is one of Britain's best judo practitioners, a fact well known in London's tough dock area, where he worked for 17 years. It probably never seemed worth mentioning in Bocking, a quiet place.
THE CORN'S THE THING
When Bill Veeck, in his Chicago days, invented the frenetic scoreboard for the celebration of home runs he was soon copied in other ball parks—to the dismay of conservatives, who believe that, as good wine needs no bush, a home run needs no fireworks.
Now the Houston Astros, not content to have the game's first domed stadium, are working on a scoreboard to surpass them all. Weighing 300 tons, it will be four stories high and cost $2 million. Six technicians and a producer—yes, a producer—will operate it. Here is what will happen when a Houston batter hits a home run:
A lighted reproduction of the domed stadium will appear on the board, with sound effects and flashing lights. A ball will travel across the top of the board while fireworks explode and skyrockets soar. Two cowboys, firing six-shooters, will enter, followed by two gigantic steers snorting fire. A cowboy will ride in and lasso one of the steers' horns. For the finale: a skyrocket display.
Babe Ruth, you were born far too soon.
With only three holes to play in the National Football League golf tournament in Hollywood Beach, Fla., Green Bay Defensive Back Jesse Whittenton had a five-stroke lead on the field. A broken-nosed, slow-swinging West Texan from Big Spring, he was staying well ahead of his closest competitor—San Francisco 49er Quarterback John Brodie, a former touring golf pro. The winner's prize, a new blue Ford Mustang, was parked behind the 18th green, where Whittenton's wife had eyed it hopefully. Then on the 16th tee, the needle went in.
"See those trees on the right, Jesse? Watch out for those trees," said Brodie. "Hey, Jesse, here's where things start happening on your backswing," yelled another player from the gallery. With all that in mind, Whittenton hit the ball into the trees and lost two shots to Brodie's par. On the 17th Whittenton hit into the trees again, made a double-bogey to Brodie's birdie and they came into 18 even. Several NFL players pointedly clutched their throats and gargled like turkeys. "Let's get this over with," growled Whittenton, and made a fine trap shot but left his 10-foot putt on the lip of the cup. Brodie's final par won the tournament, and the blue Mustang, by one stroke. "Never mind, honey," Mrs. Whittenton said tearfully, "that car wasn't our color anyway."
Then, in an ironic aftermath, Brodie had to decline the car to keep his USGA status as a reinstated amateur, and the NFL had to revise its prize list. Looks as if Whittenton won the Mustang.
Bengt Soderstrom did not win the 2,500-mile Royal Automobile Club Rally of Great Britain. Running fifth in his British Ford Cortina over icy forest roads, Soderstrom was some 500 miles from the finish and low on fuel when his gearbox broke down, leaving only reverse gear in operation. No special problem there. He turned the car and raced onward 20 miles in reverse to a refueling point, and another 17 miles to the Ford repair station. Though only 89 of the 158 entries finished the four-day event, Soderstrom came in an admirable fifth, just as good coming as going.
During his three-year career with the New York Mets, Pitcher Craig Anderson contributed not a little to their legend by winning three games and losing 20, the last 19 of them in a row. It was a period in which he was deeply involved with the Syntax, semantics and double-speak of his manager, Casey Stengel.
"You had to get used to his clue words or you couldn't understand him," Anderson says. "Like one word might mean a play, only he never told you. You had to figure it out."
Anderson learned, for example, that "butcher boy" meant that the batter was supposed to chop down on the ball and thus make sure he hit it on the ground to protect the runner. Stengel explained that one. But there were other occasions.
"I remember once," says Anderson, "Casey came out to the mound to me in a bunt situation and said, 'O.K., now, you know what I want you to do,' and turned around and walked off. Only I didn't know what he wanted and I didn't do it. When I got back to the dugout he said, 'What I wanted you to do was make the first pitch a fast ball high inside so he couldn't bunt.' I knew after that."
When you learn like that, it stays with you.
THE ANGRY MORONS
Littering the ice at professional hockey games can be a gesture in fun—in Detroit it has become a ritual for one fan to throw a small octopus on the ice before the start of a Stanley Cup playoff game—but it can also be extremely dangerous. Most dangerous is the increasing practice of tossing heated pennies or shooting paper clips onto the ice. These freeze almost instantly and are hazardous to players.
Just a few weeks ago high-scoring Gilles Tremblay, a swift-skating Montreal Canadien wing, was body-checked and, while reeling from the contact, caught his skate on a penny embedded in the ice. Result: a compound fracture of the leg that finished him for the season. And a few nights ago Frank Milne, survivor of 15 years of pro hockey without serious injury, skated over a penny while playing for the Oakville Oaks of the Ontario Hockey Association's Senior League. Result: another compound leg fracture.
Boston Garden officials are offering $100 reward for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of such litter-bugs. Madison Square Garden is conducting a similar drive. One hopes that prosecution of an offender will result in conviction and severe punishment.
Punishment more severe, let us say, than that suffered by a Chicagoan who tossed his car keys onto the ice and, red-faced, had to go to the officials' room after the game to reclaim them so that he could drive home.
THEY SAID IT
•Gomer Jones, Oklahoma coach, after declaring four of his players ineligible because they signed pro contracts before the Gator Bowl game and then losing 36-19: "Maybe I'll get my reward in heaven."