As a newspaper writer, I've covered sports from coast to coast, but after a fourth martini, when I start reminiscing, it is an early-day marbles tournament that still grabs me the tightest.
It goes back to the late 1930s, when I was breaking in as a reporter for the Decatur, Ill. Herald-Review. I covered about everything nobody else wanted, including the playgrounds and parks. Shortly I was to learn that they were to be my most important beat. It was the beat that introduced me to an incredible little marbles champion.
I knew that the aging H. C. Schaub, president of the newspaper, was also chairman of the park board. But I didn't realize he cared so much for minor sports, particularly marbles.
One afternoon H. C. summoned me into his office. He was a short, kindly man, but now there were clouds of concern on his face. "Jim," he said, "I see the scores of playground games in the bulletin board in the parks. Why don't we have them in the papers?"
February 7, 1966
"I've brought the scores in," I said, "but no one wanted them."
Schaub rushed into the newsroom with me following meekly in his wake.
"Why haven't we been printing the playground scores?" demanded Schaub of the city editor.
"No room," said the city editor.
"Well make room," said Schaub. And that was the start of the marbles boom. Soon our papers were holding a marbles tournament—and you know who was covering it. Schaub had announced that the winner would be sent to Atlantic City for the nationals.
This brought me into contact with a park rat I had already known slightly. Let's just call him Lefty French. A slim, freckled kid, he always carried a scout knife for playing mumblety-peg, for cutting kindling and for opening pop bottles. He was even more versatile than the knife. Lefty, an anemic-looking 11-year-old, was a whiz at any game he tried.
Lefty had grown up on the fringe of Fairview Park and, since he was old enough to walk, he had considered the vast playground as his private playpen.
I had played tennis with Lefty in Fair-view when no one else was around. It was like playing the backboard. There was nothing Lefty couldn't return. And it was embarrassing to lose to a mere kid.
I wasn't surprised when, after Schaub announced the marbles tournament, Lefty reembraced the sport. Practicing all day, he soon became an expert. His taw was as hot as Ken Maynard's shooting iron. He always won the lag (for first turn) at a pitch line outside the circle. He could put English on the marbles just as Hoppe did on his billiard balls.
By the time the tournament opened, it was apparent that Lefty had the hottest thumb in Decatur.
Scattering marbles like his slingshot used to scuttle ducks on the Fairview lake, the frail left-hander swept through the competition, claimed the title and now was ready for his trip to Atlantic City. I was sent along by the paper as correspondent and guide.
Before we left, Lefty's mother called me aside. "Lefty has a fondness for Orange Crush," she cautioned. "It wouldn't hurt him, except that he always eats several bags of peanuts with the pop. And on hot days it makes him sick. His little stomach just can't take it. Please watch him on that, Mr. Scott."
I promised I would.
On the train to Atlantic City I thought I had nothing to worry about, such was Lefty's dedication. Constantly he worked on his left thumb. ("Develops muscle," he explained.) Later, at our hotel, he practiced on the corridor carpet.
The next morning he pronounced himself in fine form for the meet and was eager to have at 'em. Lefty knocked off his first three opponents as easily as he had the Decatur kids.
Lefty soon was moving all over the grounds for his various matches, and by lunch time I had lost track of him.
When play was resumed Lefty was nowhere in sight. My fears soared when he was paged over the public address system. After all, he was one of the two undefeated players. Walking out on the street, I spotted a stand which had a big Orange Crush sign.
Approaching, I asked the proprietor: "You seen a freckled kid?"
"He's out behind," he said, jerking back his thumb. "Guess he had too much pop and peanuts."
Sure enough, there was Lefty lying face-down in the grass. He had vomited. He looked half dead. Even his freckles had turned pale.
"I've had it," breathed Lefty. "I feel just terrible."
I was able to get him to his feet and bathe his face with cold water from the drinking fountain.
"You've just got to go on, kid," I pleaded. "What will Decatur think if you quit?" ("What," I thought, "would Mr. Schaub think of me?")
Though still shaky, Lefty did return to action. But he wasn't himself. Several times he was called for histing (raising the hand before he shot) and hunching (moving the hand forward).
He dropped three games before he recovered his form, and he had to settle for third place. He was moody the rest of the day.
The boy was still morose when we entrained for Decatur the next morning. Not once did he take the marbles out of his pocket. Repeatedly, I tried to draw him out, to cheer him up. But he wouldn't say much. Once he did say he thought his athletic career was over.
Lefty's father was at the station to meet him. He seemed thrilled by the third-place trophy I handed him. But not Lefty. I don't think he had ever been beaten before, and he didn't know how to adjust to it.
That evening I started worrying about Lefty. Perhaps he was more ill than I thought. And I was responsible.
Calling his home, I got his mother.
"May I speak to Lefty?" I asked without identifying myself.
"I'm sorry," she said, "but he's out at Fairview for the basketball tournament. Are you Mr. Scott?"
"Well, Lefty said to tell you if you called that you should come out and see his new hook shot."