The brilliant star of the 1936 Olympic Games (he took gold medals in the 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump and 400-meter relay), Jesse Owens, now 57, works for the American League's public-relations department. He has taken a creative view of his job. He wants baseball to introduce a footrace into the annual All-Star Game, just to find out who is the fastest baseball player.
"For years," he explained during a tour of the Florida spring-training camps, "people have been trying to figure out who's the fastest in the game. Let's have 'em race and find out. Put up $5,000 and the entire purse goes to the winner. What's $5,000 to the All-Star Game?"
There was some suggestion that pulled muscles might be a discouraging prospect in such a race.
"Let's face it," Jesse said. "These athletes shouldn't be getting pulled muscles in midseason. They wouldn't, if conditioned properly."
The American League may be a shoo-in if Jesse is the track coach.
Athletes of average height or less who have been discouraged from playing basketball by the game's basic insistence on stature as a measure of competence may now take a look at something fairly new called Balanced Basketball. The idea is to give the little fellow a shot at the game.
In Balanced Basketball, players are assigned height grades of 1 to 9, like so: 1) under 5'2"; 2) 5'2" to 5'5"; 3) 5'5" to 5'8"; 4) 5'8" to 5'10½"; 5) 5'10½" to 6'1"; 6) 6'1" to 6'3½"; 7) 6'3½" to 6'6"; 8) 6'6" to 6'8"; 9) over 6'8". No team is permitted to play five men at a time whose combined height grades exceed 25.
These height scales are based on figures that show the median height of adult American males to be 5'10". Fewer than 10% of grown-up American males are taller than 6'6"—the average height of those who make a living playing basketball.
The brainchild of John McHale, a former free-lance sportswriter, Balanced Basketball has been tried successfully at recreational and junior high school levels, since the height scale can be adjusted for any age group. But it is now the basis of a New York collegiate club basketball league whose members include Iona, Manhattan, Yeshiva, Ford-ham and Cooper Union.
We don't expect Balanced Basketball to make any impression on professional basketball or, for that matter, the big-time college game, but it is pleasant to note that an essentially fine sport has been made available to shorter fellows.
YOUTH GETS SERVED
The Sport of Kings has had a Spanish accent for years. Now the official racing statistics for 1970 are out and show that the trend has not slackened. The top five jockeys last year were all Latin—Laffit Pincay Jr. of Panama at the No. 1 post with winnings of $2,626,526, followed by Eddie Belmonte of Puerto Rico, Jorge Velasquez of Panama, Angel Cordero Jr. of Puerto Rico and Jacinto Vasquez of Panama.
One reason for the success of the Latin jockeys is that boys are not permitted to be licensed as race riders at big tracks in the United States until they are 16. To the south, though, a jockey, riding at small tracks, is usually a polished rider by the time he reaches that age. When some Latin youngsters turn 16 they have been riding for six to eight years.
NO PLACE TO HIDE
To combat higher ticket prices and too many pro football games, Dom Piledggi, a Baltimore schoolteacher, formed the Sports Fans of America after last year's NFL players' strike (SI, Sept. 7, 1970).
Now, during the off season, the SFA is alive and well, though not prospering, according to a newsletter issued last week. After six months membership is 1,300. A poll of members showed that 79% favored abandonment of playoff systems in all professional sports; the same percentage favored off-track betting; 97% wanted the baseball season shortened; 40% favored retention of baseball's reserve clause (52% thought it should be modified, 7.7% had no opinion and only 3/10 of 1% believed it should be abolished).
And the newsletter, still miffed at the cost of game tickets, announced that next year SFA dues will be doubled to $4. Where does a fan go to protest against the fan group?
NOSTALGIA FOR RAPE
It is rather like Johnstown, Pa. celebrating its flood or San Francisco deciding to put on an earthquake carnival, but Shelby, Mont, says it is going ahead anyway. A couple of years hence Shelby will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the heavyweight championship fight between Jack Dempsey and Tommy Gibbons—the fight that caused the closing of three banks and devastated the economy of Shelby for many a year. You are invited.
Today, Shelby bills itself as "the fastest-growing town in the West," and has increased somewhat beyond what it was in 1923, when it had a population of about 2,000 and the nerve of 10,000 tigers. Today's population: 3,200.
Shelby offered Dempsey's manager, Jack Kearns, $300,000 for the fight. The townspeople built a 40,000-seat arena, then found they couldn't raise the guarantee. Kearns howled that he would call off the fight, thus discouraging fans from flocking in on the Great Northern railroad. A crowd of about 25,000, half of which crashed, paid $201,485 to see Gibbons lose in 15 rounds, the longest any man had stayed with Dempsey. Kearns took all of the gate and Gibbons received none of it.
Well, people like to talk about their operations and Shelby has every right to hark back to its most painful day. Anyway, the fight was staged on the Fourth of July and that's something to celebrate.
BIG THINKER ON THE DAIS
Despite his many problems (expansion, Spencer Haywood, the scrap with the American Basketball Association), the National Basketball Association's commissioner, Walter Kennedy, continues to think big. The way he sees it, the NBA will be renamed the International Basketball Association before 1980. Right now, he says, Italy, Mexico and Hawaii want into the league. Hawaii—though not, of course, international—has promised to build a 15,000-seat arena. Mexico City already has a "great facility," he noted.
"In fact," he told some fascinated bunnies at Boston's Playboy Club, "we've found great interest in Europe and the Philippines, in addition to Mexico and Hawaii, so I don't see any reason why we can't go to Rome, Madrid, Barcelona, Mexico City and Honolulu. Not right now, mind you, but as the '70s unfold, we'll begin to widen our horizons."
You may not have heard of the World Poker Federation, since it is a rather loosely assembled group of players. So do not feel badly about missing the first World Poker championships in Cannes, which were played on about the same basis. Forty-two entrants sat around tables at the Palais des Festivals for five days of poker games, and not a franc changed hands.
At first the tournament consisted solely of Britons, because they were there, but then three Americans wandered in—one retired Denver judge and two touring golfers from Pittsburgh—and they suddenly became the American team. They were eliminated before the finals, and went back to vacationing.
Players were issued equal stacks of chips, and the games (five varieties) were limited to three hours. Bets, if they can be called that, were restricted to half of what was in each pot. After a match the chips were totaled to determine winners. Fair enough. Still, when the tournament got down to seven players in the finals one of them was a woman who had never played before and who had thrown away a royal flush in Tuesday's play because "I had no idea all those cards were diamonds or whatever you call them."
When it was all over, the new world poker champion turned out to be Rose Wolfe, a petite mother of four, whose husband, Sidney, happens to be chairman of the new world federation. Sidney also happened to finish second. Rose's trophy was an almost life-size silver hand holding a royal flush. In spades.
Flushed with success, Sidney Wolfe said, "We proved that poker can be an exciting game even if it is not played for money." For his next act Wolfe plans a series of national championships starting with one in New York next October, with the national winners to play in Cannes again next year. As real poker players say. big deal.
It used to be that a father had to be reasonably affluent to buy his child the pony that every kid wants. But now the pony market is down, according to Willis K. Lynch, president of Maryland Pony Breeders, Inc.
"I see herds of ponies going through auction rings selling at prices of $3 to $15," he says, whereas the minimum bid used to be $50.
Lynch blames indiscriminate breeding. "A mare and a stallion [of no particular breeding] are purchased," he explained. "They are turned out together. Ponies don't take much care in a pasture. Time goes by quickly and a cute foal is born. More time goes by. Another foal. This sequence of events continues and in four years the family totals five. Of these, three colts are sold at auction for a grand total of $21."
The fisherman who loves the bountiful streams and lakes of Maine will admit nonetheless that they are not paradise. There are those millions of pesky black flies.
At long last something is being done about them. A not terribly extravagant legislature appropriated $3,000 for a study of the flies by a University of Maine research team and now the team has reported. In hopes of raising the flies in the laboratory, where an effort would be made to find a vaccine, they have sent black-fly larvae to the Hollister-Stier Laboratories in Spokane.
"We should know by next spring; whether a larval vaccine is effective and practical to manufacture," the team reported.
One cheery note. Not all black flies are nuisances.
"Although we have taken approximately 27 species of black flies in Maine," the report said, "only eight species have been taken during the act of biting man and it appears that about 99% of the annoyance is caused by only four species."
It's a busy little four, though.
THE CLANDESTINE WINNER
Somewhere in Bologna, Italy there is a soccer-pools player with winnings of $706,400 in his pocket and a tendency to keep looking back over his shoulder.
For a total investment of $1.28, the player picked all 13 games correctly on one sheet and got 12 of 13 on three other sheets. Thereby he surpassed the previous record winnings of $570,000.
So that he need not identify himself, the player did what most of Italy's big winners do. He cashed his ticket through a bank or a notary public. That way he could avoid government tax collectors. Not to mention suddenly solicitous relatives.
DANGER ON THE SLOPES
At the height of the skiing season, Austrians took a look at some statistics and shuddered. At 70,000 per year, ski accidents topped the country's car accidents by 10,000. Out of Austria's total population of seven million, one million are skiers.
THEY SAID IT
•Jack Concannon, on the reaction he expects from the Chicago Bears' front office to his Fu Manchu mustache, long sideburns and collar-length hair: "They want us to play like Joe Namath but we can't look like him."
•Casey Cox, Washington Senators' pitcher, asked why a picture of the Baltimore Orioles' Mark Belanger hangs in the Senators' clubhouse: "He was the only guy we could get out last year."
•Rocky Graziano, former middleweight champion and sometime painter: "Well, I turned out 150 paintings, and I do heads of people, too. But when I do a head of someone, I always give him a cauliflower ear—just a little bit."