WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE; TWO-HANDED SET SHOT? FOR THAT MATTER, WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE ONE-HANDED HANDSHAKE? IN THE PAST 20 YEARS, A SPAN OF TIME THAT COINCIDES WITH THE HISTORY OF SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, SPORT HAS UNDERGONE VAST CHANGE-NEW LEAGUES, PLASTIC GRASS, THE EMERGENCE OF BLACKS, WOMEN AND LONELY ENDS, INSTANT REPLAY, DOMED STADIUMS, HOWARD COSELL. A LOOK AT WHERE WE'VE BEEN/AND WHERE WE'RE GOING.
I had never been in greater haste to leave a place. The documents releasing me from two years of undistinguished Army service were in hand as I burst into the company recreation room to tender some swift farewells.
Then, out of the corner of an eye, I saw the familiar, compelling glimmer. It was shed by an 11-inch television screen, around which were clustered the usual dozen or more transfixed young soldiers. Now this was a time in my life when I could not pass a television screen without pausing to stare hopelessly at it, be the fare Playhouse 90 or Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. So even in my headlong flight from the colors, I stopped to see what was on. It was Sept. 29, 1954, my last day in the Army, Independence Day.
Mine was not a television generation. Radio was our opium. TV had arrived too late to hold us in thrall as, say, Fibber McGee and Molly had. It was a curiosity, although there was no arguing its hypnotic powers, its capacity for clouding men's minds. If the set was on, you watched, whether the program was a wrestling match or a cooking lesson.
December 23, 1974
What was on this day was the opening game of the 1954 World Series between the New York Giants and the Cleveland Indians. It was the eighth inning when I stopped to watch, drawn irresistibly to the shimmering eye.
And, of course, it was the World Series. Don Liddle—"Little Don Liddle"—was pitching for the Giants with Vic Wertz batting. Two men were on base; the score was 2-2. Wertz was a power hitter, capable of winning the game right then. I could not leave. Besides, after two years of defending Western civilization, as we know it, against the Asiatic Communist hordes from behind a typewriter in West Germany, what could a few more minutes matter?
On the next pitch, Wertz slugged the ball into the boundless reaches of center field in the Polo Grounds. Willie Mays, the Giants' young centerfielder, turned his back to home plate and set off in what was obviously futile pursuit. Mays' best hope, it seemed, was to prevent an inside-the-park home run with a quick recovery and accurate throw.
On the small, flickering screen, Mays was running, running, as if there were no walls to contain him, as if he would track down the ball even if it should descend in a Harlem alley. The ball appeared as a feathery blur, fluttering like a homing pigeon toward the running man. Mays did not even seem to look up as it nestled into his reaching glove.
The audience in the rec room exploded in celebration. We shouted, stomped our feet and punched each other in the arm, that being a popular means of expressing emotion in those days. We did not embrace, for even in our excitement we were, above all else, "cool." Mostly, we just shouted, "Way to go, Willie. Way to go!"
Broadcaster Russ Hodges advised us that we had just witnessed one of the great catches in World Series history. We could hardly dispute that judgment, since most of us had not seen so much as a routine catch in World Series history. We saw it "live," if but once, instant replay being some 10 years away. It was a good moment.
"Way to go, Willie," I chortled to myself as I hurried off to the future that lay in wait. "Way to go!"
I only dimly perceived that what I had just seen was, in a sense, history. I had no idea that the future I was about to embrace so ardently would include a "sports world" of staggering immensity, or that TV, that flickering screen, would capture and illuminate it so insistently.
Television may have breathed life into some sports, notably professional football, but it killed minor league baseball and mortally wounded boxing. Minor league baseball had an attendance of 42 million in 1949; in 1973 it was 11 million. In the same period, the number of teams dropped from 488 to 144. The fans had become accustomed to watching big-league games for free on TV. Boxing seemed at first to thrive on television coverage. The Wednesday-and Friday-night fights were prime-time attractions and name boxers were created overnight—Chico Vejar, Chuck Davey, Ralph (Tiger) Jones. But the constant exposure ruined the boxing clubs that had been the training ground of champions. There were 300 clubs in 1952, fewer than 50 only seven years later. Then televised boxing reached the limbo of overexposure. By the end of the decade, save for the high-priced theater broadcasts, boxing had all but vanished from the air.
The Richmond Auditorium across the bay from San Francisco was a tidy, greenish building, not at all like the decaying, smoke-filled arenas of fight-game legend. High school basketball seemed more appropriate to these congenial surroundings and, indeed, when the boxing crowd was not there that was the auditorium's principal attraction. And yet the Richmond fight club was successful in the '50s and, like the others, it cultivated its own crop of local favorites. The one I will always remember was Eddie Machen, a heavyweight who later became a leading contender.
Machen was the king of Richmond in the mid-'50s, a powerfully muscled, handsome black man with the air of a champion. His clothes—gaudy, brilliant, luminous combinations—were at least 10 years in advance of male fashion. He was seldom without a dazzling beauty on his arm, and his arrival in the Richmond Auditorium would invariably signal a standing ovation.
Machen would later be knocked out by Ingemar Johansson, then an unknown, and he would take a terrible beating from Floyd Patterson. Finally, he would suffer a nervous breakdown, be embarrassed by several bizarre altercations with the police (one involving a gun) and, at the age of 40, a broken, sad wreck of a man, he would die mysteriously from a fall off his apartment deck in San Francisco's Mission District.
I cannot say for certain if Machen was in the auditorium on April 10, 1956, the night I saw Archie Moore fight there. He probably was, for in those days he seldom missed an opportunity to be introduced in the Richmond ring. But even if he had been there he would have been overshadowed, since it was rare for the local promoters to book a celebrity of Moore's stature. Moore was still the light heavyweight champion of the world, and only seven months earlier he had fought a gallant heavyweight title match with Rocky Marciano before succumbing in the ninth round. But he had knocked the champion down early in the fight and he remained a champion in his own right. The knowledgeable fight fans in Richmond flocked in great numbers—maybe 3,000—to see this venerable warrior meet an obscure local heavyweight, one Willie Bean.
I was covering the fight for the Berkeley Gazette. I say "covering," although that is not an accurate description of what I was doing, since boxing was a beat I had created for myself. I had been hired away by the Gazette from a public-relations job—for which I was monumentally unsuited—to cover high school sports in the East Bay. Boxing was definitely not part of that assignment. The Gazette, a parochial college-town paper then, had ignored the sport, presumably in the belief, later confirmed, that it would go away. Boxing also happened to be just one of many sports of which the then sports editor knew nothing and cared less.
As a fight fan, I felt the Gazette had been derelict in eschewing the Richmond matches, and I was determined to compensate personally for that neglect. So I appeared at ringside every week, utilizing credentials that had once been passed on to typographers.
I was there, as usual, to see Moore's Richmond debut. Actually, I had seen him fight eight years before in Oakland, when he had lost in a single round to a local hopeful, Leonard Morrow. This brief encounter raised many eyebrows, since Morrow was young and promising, a potential contender, and Moore, who had already been fighting a dozen years, was in the trial-horse period of his career. Rumors, always unfounded, persisted that the older combatant had been handsomely compensated for excusing himself early from the hostilities.
But in 1956 that seemed long ago. Moore's career had recently taken a dramatic turn upward at a time when it might have been expected to wind down. He had become a champion in the '50s. He had fought and defeated the best light heavies and many of the heavies. He had achieved a reputation as a mystic through an Australian aborigine diet that allowed him to fight one night weighing more than 200 pounds and only a few months later at the light-heavyweight limit of 175. He was the wily and respected elder statesman of the squared circle. He was The Mongoose.
Moore looked less mystic than bored as he labored through the ropes into the Richmond ring. He wore a richly brocaded robe that, nonetheless, seemed faded. When he removed it, his belly was revealed, fairly spilling over the waistband of trunks that were so long they looked like Bermuda shorts. He weighed nearly 25 pounds more than he had for the Marciano fight and he carried this excess poorly. He was hardly a figure to inspire awe, a fat, graying, middle-aged man of either 43 or 40, depending on whether one accepted the birth date he faithfully recited or the earlier one his mother inadvertently disclosed during an interview. Only the long, thick boxer's arms were impressive.
Bean, Moore's opponent, was more athletic looking. He was tall and flat-bellied, with wide shoulders and a thick neck. The muscles on his back rippled as he danced, face lowered, in his corner. But when he turned to confront the portly old party opposite him, it was apparent he was scared stiff. He had never before fought anyone as formidable as Moore. He was a tune-up, and he knew it. He was already perspiring heavily. He was finished before he started.
He was, in fact, finished not long after he started. Moore cuffed him at will in the first two rounds, puffing from the exertion. The Mongoose was annoyed that his prey would not come to him, that he was obliged to plod after the frightened wretch. Bean scarcely threw a punch. His eyes were wide with apprehension.
In the fifth round Moore reached him with a combination of ponderous blows. Bean folded up along the ropes above me, not so much injured as relieved, even grateful, to have the ordeal come to a close. Moore consented to have his arm raised, then he hurried from the ring, the great tummy bouncing beneath the robe.
We writers also rushed to the dressing room, although I was detained by officious functionaries demanding to see my press pass. Did I look so callow they could not recognize me as a certified fight writer?
By the time I reached Moore's dressing room the other reporters were leaving it. Apparently Moore had not had much to say about the lackluster confrontation. I plunged into the room and found myself alone with the great man, save for a trainer off in one corner stirring his elixirs.
Moore was supine on the rubbing table, absolutely motionless. His eyes were closed. A Johnny Hodges solo on, as I recall, I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good reached us from a record player near Moore's place of rest. I started to say something like "Hi, Archie," but before I could utter a syllable, he raised a hand to silence me. The alto sax had more to say to him at that moment.
I was then—and am, regrettably, now—uncomfortable in the presence of athletes in a locker room. It is their place of business, and though it is obviously also mine, I cannot help but feel like an interloper. Perhaps I was too long a fan before I troubled to talk to famous athletes. Although in some company I am considered glib)—even, at certain hours of the evening, garrulous—around athletes I am without conversational resources. I am often resentful of my tongue-tied inability to say anything remotely intelligent to even the most unlettered lout of a game player. It is, I suppose, a hang-up.
So, on this night, I sat in a chair as Moore lay there like a corpse. The two of us listened wordlessly as the fine old Ellington record spun to a conclusion. Moore may well have been sound asleep when I padded embarrassedly out of the room, although I could have sworn I saw the trainer wink at him as I gently closed the door.
The next day I wrote that Moore, the cagey old Mongoose, had dispatched poor Bean with such consummate ease there was little he could say about the experience afterward. That was pretty much what the other writers wrote.
It was a different tour than it is today," said Arnold Palmer. "More camaraderie. The game was faster. There was a different breed of golfer. You knew everybody on the tour. It was not as large in numbers, but the quality of the golfers was just as good. Now, of course, there are a lot more good golfers, but the guys I was playing with were damn good. There's no question about that."
Nineteen sixty-seven was not a good year for Ken Venturi. His hands had gone numb because of some strange circulatory ailment, his marriage to a beautiful and charming woman was beginning to come apart, and his younger son had been seriously injured in an auto accident. But he had won the 1964 U.S. Open and he still had money, fast cars and a big house with a swimming pool in the same town, Hillsborough, Calif., that Bing Crosby lived in. He had always been a complex man, part small boy with an easily bruised ego and a sense that the world orbited around him, part old man with a wistful feel for the past, a nagging sense of loss and a carefully structured notion of how things ought to be.
Golf is not a game I care about, but Venturi in his prime was such a craftsman it was impossible not to admire him. His swing, they say, was among the best ever. He was not particularly large or strong, but he had an athlete's grace, a way of moving that the rest of us can only envy.
I had known him casually for a number of years, mostly during a time when no one outside the San Francisco Bay Area had ever heard of him. "Ken Venturi is going to be the greatest golfer in history," a friend of his told me one night when both of us were still undergraduates. "People won't even mention Hogan's name in the same breath."
That prophecy was nearly realized. Venturi was a child prodigy, an amateur who almost won the Masters, and he had risen to glory in concert with an even more famous golfer, Arnold Palmer. His rapid descent was, in hyperbolic sports vernacular, tragic.
I saw Venturi only a month or so ago at a football game. He seemed happy, adjusted, O.K. He lives in Palm Springs now. He has a new wife, a new life and he is the friend of Frank Sinatra. The boyish charm is intact. In his 40s, Venturi still speaks in the 1950s' college idiom: people are "out to lunch" or "way out in left field."
But on a night some seven years ago, when a friend and I had dinner at his house, he was burdened by an inner torment. The life he had carefully built for himself, the happy-go-lucky professional golfer's life, was disintegrating and he had no alternative plan. We had several martinis. We recalled old friends and we spoke positively of his future. His wife Conni busied herself with hors d'oeuvres and drink-mixing. Venturi likes bluff male companionship.
He brought a large manilla folder into the room. "Look at these," he said, spreading some letters on the coffee table. "Here's one from Charley Johnson, the Cardinals' quarterback. A smart guy, Ph.D., the works. He says I'm an inspiration to him. Me, an inspiration? How 'bout that?"
Venturi was like most of us who were reared in the '30s. Life remains a movie, a series of clearly defined defeats and triumphs, comebacks and upsets. It has beginnings and endings. The middles are what life is really about, but we see them only as fallow transitions to the time when we get the girl, out-duel Basil Rathbone or gallop, lonely and romantic, off into the sunset.
Venturi was then entering what he hoped would be the comeback phase of his life. He had created a character for himself—the good man you can't keep down—and he was living the part. "I can grip the club now," he said. "It won't be long."
We, his guests, believed him. What was more gratifying than a comeback? Life at its best was a comeback. Destry rides again.
"You remember that cover of me on SPOUTS ILLUSTRATED?" he said. "C'mon, I want to show you something."
Venturi led us into a room just off the living room. It was dark. We could see nothing. Then he flipped the light switch and one wall was brilliantly illuminated. On it was the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED cover blown up to life-size. There was Venturi in his ultimate moment, an exhausted, exultant figure raising a white cap victoriously. We could almost share that feeling, looking at the giant reproduction. The white cap? It was like the fourth feather "Leftenant" Faversham returned to his fiancée in a movie that had shaped all of our lives—the triumphant underdog, the coward proved brave.
I do not know how long we stood there before that bright image. I could not see the expression on the real Venturi's face. I felt confused, as if there were something I should say, but I could think of nothing.
"Let's go get something to eat," he said, flipping the light switch, shutting off the glory.
Baseball was the first sport to be televised, an otherwise unimportant game between Columbia and I Princeton being telecast over W2XBS, New York, as early as May 17, 1939. And in the postwar years the World Series was TV's prestige sports attraction. Yet baseball, of all games, cannot be adequately portrayed on the small screen. The action is too diffuse, the players too departmentalized to be captured in a single picture. Professional football, an incipient rival in the early '50s, would reap the media harvest instead. The National Football League championship game of 1958 between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants would assure that sport electronic preeminence, presumably forever. In the next decade, pro football's popularity would approach mania.
Of all the bartenders in San Francisco in the decade of the '60s, and their number was legion, James S. Todt did the best Bogart. His impersonation was uncannily close to the real article, and he might go an entire shift without slipping out of character. If someone in Todt's presence would advance toward the jukebox, he might grumble moodily, "You played it for her, you can play it for me." Or he might startle a woman customer by gazing disconsolately into her glass before protesting, "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine." Questioned on a matter of principle, Todt invariably rejoined, "Fred C. Dobbs don't say nothin' he don't mean."
But even this superb entertainer was not immune from ordinary human failings. In the opinion of Todt watchers he had one stupendous imperfection—his fanatical devotion to San Francisco 49er Quarterback John Brodie, whose career in the '60s was a masterwork of inconsistency. All starting 49er quarterbacks were mercilessly booed and their replacements extravagantly praised in those years, but none endured the abuse Brodie shouldered, for none played so long. Eventually, a fence had to be erected above the players' tunnel at Kezar Stadium to shield Brodie from those who would skull him with beer cans.
Todt's fidelity to his persecuted idol was unshakable. He had followed Brodie since the quarterback's sophomore year at Stanford, and when Brodie joined the 49ers in 1957 Todt founded the John Brodie Fan Club of Northern California, an organization he prophesied would soon surpass in both numbers and fanaticism societies formed on behalf of Elvis Presley and the late James Dean. Ten years later the JBFCNC was still in business, and Todt was able to report in his annual message to his constituents, "We have doubled our membership to five."
After several years of hearing the various Todt bon mots, of auditioning his Bogey and his Benny—"Now cut that out"—I found it hard to believe that an intelligent man in his 40s could possibly be that serious about Brodie. True, I had received messages from him on JBFCNC stationery, but that seemed simply part of the running gag.
Then one day I was invited to the Todt home to watch a 49er out-of-town game on television. Todt himself answered the door. He was wearing a 49er helmet and a red No. 12 jersey, Brodie's number. The costume was only peripherally intended to amuse It helped Todt get in a proper frame of mind—insane—for the game. Lord, how that man suffered as his hero would first engineer a masterful drive into enemy territory, then toss the interception that terminated it. "John, John, John..." Todt moaned at the television screen. He nearly wept when the game ended unfavorably for the home team—if memory serves, on a Brodie interception. There was no more questioning his devotion. I felt like someone who had debunked Bernadette.
Somewhat later, I attended a game at Kezar Stadium with Todt, his wife Judy and some of their friends. The day began, as every 49er game began for them, in a neighborhood bar, where Todt exchanged japes and wagers with other regulars. The entire party was eventually loaded—and that is the word—aboard a rented bus for the trip to Golden Gate Park and the dilapidated stadium.
Most of the fans in the Todts' section had been season ticket-holders for many years. They had come to know each other well. Still, the Todts were celebrities. "Here comes big No. 12," someone shouted as Todt, mounting the steps, smiled and raised a hand in a V signal. The bench seats in old Kezar were built for a slenderer generation of football watchers so that when the crowd exceeded 50,000 the fans were closely packed. Contiguity can breed contempt, and Todt and his seatmates were soon involved in a surprisingly hostile debate on the relative merits of Brodie and his rookie heir apparent, Steve Spurrier.
Todt nevertheless maintained his composure under fire. Mrs. Todt was experiencing a somewhat stiffer struggle with her own self-restraint. Finally, when the gentleman seated in front of Todt taunted him, in terms Mrs. Todt regarded as unconscionably personal, on a misfired Brodie pass, she shook the bottle of champagne she had been enjoying and directed the contents at the face of her husband's tormentor. The ensuing melee was typical of a Sunday afternoon in Kezar in those years of high passion. There were no arrests and only a few minor injuries.
One question remained: Had Todt ever met his idol, his John, face-to-face? I approached him on this matter one evening at a bar where he was then employed. Todt had just finished informing an astonished woman sitting next to me that "Yes, Angel, I'm gonna send you over," but he answered me in the unfamiliar voice of James S. Todt.
"Yes, I did meet John not long ago. It was in the steam room of the Ambassador Health Club. We were both naked as jaybirds, mind you. A mutual friend told John, "Now here's a guy you just gotta meet.' John knew all about the fan club and about the trouble I usually get into because of it so he didn't say anything at first. He just looked me up and down. Then he said, 'Jim, I thought you'd look much different.' Different? I was afraid he was gonna say something like, 'I thought you'd be a much younger, thinner, better-looking guy.' 'Different in what way?' I asked. 'Well,' he said, 'I thought you'd have bruises all over your body.' "
It was a start, as Rick advised Louis that eventful night at the Casablanca airport, "of a beautiful friendship."
In the 1954-55 season there were eight blacks in the entire National Basketball Association. The league is now more than 60% black and five of the 18 head coaches are black. The average annual salary in the NBA is $90,000 and 25% of the players make more than $100,000.
Very few professional athletes become part of the community where they play. Nate Thurmond, when he was the center for the Warriors, did become part of San Francisco. He was seen everywhere—in the bars and restaurants, at banquets and parties, at baseball and football games. Almost no one saw Willie Mays in public, but Thurmond got around. He was single, and he lived in the city, not in some remote, self-contained suburb. He owned a restaurant in town and he was a fixture there. One day a spurned girlfriend of his deliberately crashed one of his two expensive automobiles directly into the other while it was parked in front of the restaurant. Thurmond watched the disaster from the doorway.
On another occasion he asked a sportswriter friend if he could get into a banquet. "Sure," the friend told Thurmond, who was nearly seven feet tall, black and practically bald. "Wear a red carnation so they'll be able to identify you at the door."
He lived high as the highest-paid player on the team. His apartment was supposed to be a showplace. He had girls by the score. He dressed not so much as a modern athlete—gaudy jump suits and such—but as a striped-suited international banker.
One night a few years ago, while we were all whooping it up at Perry's Bar on Union Street, Thurmond invited some of us over for a nightcap at his lush Russian Hill apartment. I had never been there and was anxious to go. I wanted to see how this giant pooh-bah lived. I liked his style.
With directions scratched on a cocktail napkin, I drove off with a friend for the nightcap. We had some trouble parking the car—almost as much as we had driving it—but we finally did locate ourselves near the building. "Nate is supposed to live on the 12th floor," I remarked to my friend in the lobby, "but this elevator only goes to the 11th."
"He lives on the roof," said my friend, attempting to sound knowledgeable through the blur of his diction. "In a penthouse."
We got out on the 11th floor and ascended a flight of stairs to the roof. It was a spectacularly clear, moonlit night. We could see the bay shimmering beneath us. What we could not see was anything resembling an apartment.
In the adjoining building, however, a party was going on in a magnificently appointed apartment. We could see through the open windows scores of pretty women, well-dressed men and all manner of food and drink. The laughter penetrated the cool, crisp night air. We watched, like two waifs pressing faces against a candy-store window. Swaying there on the roof, we were captivated by the opulence and gaiety. It was the sort of party we had always wanted to be invited to.
Then, suddenly, our view was gone, obliterated by a giant figure in front of the window. We Peeping Toms cursed his rudeness. When he finally moved away, we could see he was nearly seven feet tall, black and practically bald. He was wearing a striped suit.
"Wrong building," said my friend.
"Oh, what the hell," I said.
We watched only a few minutes more, then I drove him to his apartment and returned home to my wakening wife. "Where have you been all this time?" she asked. "Nowhere," I said.
During the past 20 years Americans have steadily become a nation of participants. Inspired, perhaps, by President Kennedy's plea for physical fitness, Americans have been jogging, hiking, bicycling, skiing and playing tennis and golf. The Kennedys set an example with their family touch-football games. Sales of sports equipment, according to a National Sporting Goods Association survey, are up more than 600% since 1955. More than 100 million Americans now swim regularly, the same number ride bicycles and 20 million play tennis. The emphasis has been on participation for its own sake as opposed to the win philosophy long espoused by the powers in big-time college and professional sport.
A newspaper columnist I know wrote not long ago about how mature he had become in his approach to competitive athletics. He told how he had been such a bad loser for so many years and how, now that he was nearing 40, he had seen the light. His wife and he can play as tennis doubles partners these days without a single slurring remark about backhands or double faults. They can play, he insisted, without even caring whether they win or lose. He can leave the court, he wrote, feeling comfortable in the knowledge that he had done his best and if that had not been good enough, well then, c'est la vie.
Bully, I say, for him. It is just that I have not run across many people who can put this philosophy into practice, including me. What happens in real life is that when most of us turn to playing children's games—and what game is not a children's game?—we tend to behave like children. I envy my columnist friend his newfound maturity. At the same time I mourn the blandness that seems to have crept into his sporting life, such as it is. Take the infantile out of sport and you have taken the joy out of it. The playing field is an unlikely place to discover maturity. And exercising for exercising's sake is an exercise in boredom. What, after all, is so keen about being grown up? People who fall in love are not grown-up.
When I was a boy, I read somewhere that Elroy (Crazy Legs) Hirsch learned to be such a neat broken-field runner by dodging weeds and shrubbery in vacant lots. From then on, I could not pass a vacant lot without dodging through its flora crazy-leggedly. The temptation, alas, is still there, although now I content myself with walking briskly down crowded metropolitan streets, head-faking a lady shopper here, giving the hip to a messenger boy there, utilizing my "quick feet" to elude a street vendor over there, all the while giving free reign to a fevered imagination. "Fimrite has the ball on the 10, he's up to the 20, the 30. He makes a great move...There's only one man who can stop him now and that's the great Glenn Davis...He is outrunning Davis...He scores for California!"
I was pleased, incidentally, to learn some time ago from a onetime great broken-field runner, Hugh McElhenny, that the process can be reversed. McElhenny told me that when he was dodging tacklers on NFL gridirons he imagined himself a little kid hurrying home from a scary movie. He knew there were monsters in every doorway ready to leap out at him, and though he could not see them, he would anticipate their moves and elude them instinctively.
When President Kennedy advised us all to get off our duffs and start working out, I, as a loyal Kennedy man, dutifully obliged. Jogging was both boring and painful, and I had long since abandoned golf and tennis as too hard on the nervous system, so I took up what was then known as paddleball and is now called racquetball. My physical condition has not improved much, but I have at least reached a détente with my bad habits.
I will also play a little softball from time to time, reciting, predictably, a familiar litany: "It's a fast ball high and inside. Fimrite swings and there's a long, high fly ball to deep center field. Mays goes back, but that ball is going, going, gone"—all that before popping up to second base.
Touch football is something else. This is a game I should definitely give up, as any number of pulled muscles and deep bruises will attest. I will not give it up, of course, simply because it affords an opportunity to indulge those childish fantasies. "The hand off is to Fimrite.... He's swinging wide around left end...." There yet remains the chance that I will cut back against the grain of taggers, pick up some blocking and "break one."
Several weeks ago I was asked to play in a game of touch with a number of men, most of whom were only slightly younger than I. Naturally, I accepted, flattered that they should think the old boy still had something left. I had a pretty good day out there, hitting on three of the four passes they allowed me to throw and intercepting another. I must confess, though, that late in the going I was over-taken by a certain inexplicable fatigue. Dead game to the last, I refused to be taken out.
About this time the other team had the ball deep in our territory and, though we were comfortably ahead, I was alert for a possible second interception. Their quarterback dropped back to pass on first down, and I could see a receiver—a sturdily built youngster still in his 20s—speeding into my zone, searching, undoubtedly, for the crease. As a crafty veteran, I calculated that this late in the game they might foolishly be planning to "pick on me."
Sure enough, the quarterback spotted my man and released the ball just as I moved in for the interception. Ball, receiver and aging defender arrived simultaneously. The ball and receiver advanced a few more yards after the collision before he was necktie-tagged by another defender. I remained behind, clutching my injured head like some latter-day Y. A. Tittle, blood seeping through my fingers.
I was carted off to a hospital, where a deep eye cut was stitched. The eye itself soon closed under a mass of discolored flesh. Ali did not do as much damage to Foreman.
There were guests in my house when I returned. I instantly became a figure of ridicule and misplaced pity. "What did you say at the hospital when you gave your age and then told them how you got hurt?" one friend inquired. And was that a "No fool like an old fool" I heard in the back of the room?
"Now, just wait a moment," I said, fixing the assemblage with an icy, Cyclopean glare. "You are forgetting the most important thing, the only thing."
There was a momentary silence, as if there might be some interest in what I might say next.
"You forget," I continued, allowing a suggestion of pride to color my tone of voice, "you forget that whatever might have happened to me, whatever pain I might have endured—and you must learn to play with pain—and whatever permanent injury I may have suffered...we still won the game."
So 20 years have passed. There have been changes, I suppose. There are major league teams everywhere now, and most of them play not on the fields of friendly strife but on ersatz grass. But how many changes have there really been? George Blanda says that in his 26 years as a professional, football has changed hardly at all, except that the players are bigger, faster, smarter and more disloyal to their employers. He also says that the new breed of pro, the rookies fresh from college, are "more like us old guys."
Change is never apparent until a new change occurs. Anyway, change is not so much what you remember over the years. What you recall are isolated incidents, apparently meaningless events or people you cannot get out of your mind. Think of them and you pause in the mad dash into the future, pause long enough to gauge the distance you have come.
How many thousands of sports events have I seen on television since the opening game of the 1954 World Series? And yet there will always be that unforgettable catch, Mays running, running...running off into memory.
And when was the last time I said, "Way to go?" Why just now.