Like mumps or measles, bike polo was a fever that rushed through our neighborhood and infected every bike-owning male of high school age. It hit those of us about to enter high school the hardest. The symptoms were dramatic: You hopped on your solid old Schwinn or J.C. Higgins two-wheeler, the one with tires that wide, pedaled over to the Washington Elementary School playground and proceeded to annihilate your own beloved bike as well as those of your friends.
Flint, Mich., summer of 1958. I'm positive about the year because in just one short month Jim Stephens, Ron Kuberski, Charlie Johnson, Don Harris, John Zillich and Norm Sullivan—the whole bunch of us—would be attending Flint's Central High instead of Whittier Junior High, along with the 2,900 other students already enrolled in the high school.
This would be our first year at Central, and we knew there were certain things that were just "uncool." For example, it was uncool to wear penny loafers. No, wearing penny loafers was worse than uncool, it was unthinkable. You had to wear black, pointy-toed, four-eyelet shoes with taps on each heel that you scuffed along the halls as you walked. You had to wear denim Levi's with the cuffs turned up ever so slightly, to about the width of the obligatory pencil-thin belt. A wide belt like the one your father wore wasn't unthinkable, but it was definitely uncool. Even the notebook carried between classes had to be of a certain kind—a blue-gray, clothbound cardboard model that contained two-hole notebook paper.
And every one of us knew it was going to be uncool to be seen riding a bike to high school—or anywhere else, for that matter. We were only a year away from being old enough to have our own cars, and being seen pedaling a Schwinn around town somehow disassociated you from this approaching milestone. If you were lucky, you knew a junior or a senior who already owned a car and you could ride to school with him. If you were really lucky, the car was a stripped-down '55 or '56 Chevy with a flat black primer paint job and gaudy chrome hubcaps. Underneath, it would have a glasspack—a muffler lined with fiber glass—which would pop and sputter when you downshifted the standard transmission, advertising to everyone that this car was truly special. That was cool.
September 6, 1981
In the summer of '58 we looked at our Schwinns with very uncool, jaundiced eyes. Imagine one of the high school cheerleaders seeing you riding that thing. It could set a guy back a year, maybe two. You wouldn't have any more chance of dating a cheerleader than the guys who wore regular slacks, carried briefcases to school and had clip-on plastic penholders in their shirt pockets. And dating a cheerleader was, of course, the pinnacle of coolness.
So maybe we sacrificed our bikes for the cheerleaders. Maybe bike polo was a postpubescent, pre-adult ritual in which we not only left a childhood thing behind, we also destroyed it so that going back would be impossible. The site that we chose for this event (I hesitate to call it a game) now seems meaningful. We chose our old elementary school playground, which we had also outgrown. The Softball field had been set up among the dirt, weeds and gravel so that the leftfield fence was only 150 feet down the line from home plate. By sixth grade, some of us could easily knock a softball over this fence and into the flower gardens or off the front porches of the houses across the street. And that, according to the people who lived there, was very uncool. We hadn't played softball there for two or three years, and bike polo was our last hurrah on that playground.
I have absolutely no recollection of how it all got started. Suffice it to say that one of us experienced a moment of pure creative genius. Recruitment of players willing to sacrifice their bikes was aided by that stalwart ally of conformity—peer pressure. If someone hesitated to enter his bicycle into the fracas, you had only to ask, "Well, what are you going to do with it now, ride it to school?" Those who didn't take readily to the idea of bike polo were shamed into it and dared not change their minds.
I also cannot remember who provided the croquet set. Perhaps it is he who should be credited with the conception of bike polo.
We chose sides, put a wooden croquet ball just beyond second base and lined up—one team along the third-base line, the other team somewhere in the depths of rightfield. I can still picture it: six riders on a side, each with a wooden mallet; a lone croquet ball in the middle of the field; tin cans placed about 10 feet apart for goals; 12 young men on their bikes poised with one foot on the ground for the pushoff.
And we went. Twelve speeding bikes and 12 swinging mallets converged on the croquet ball. At first there were no rules except that you couldn't touch the ball if you weren't on your bike. There was no strategy, either, except to hit the ball in the direction of the opponent's goal.
From a distance, bike polo must have seemed like bedlam, which it was, but those of us who played soon developed a modicum of finesse. For example, during the face-off that began the game and occurred after each infrequent goal, we learned that it wasn't wise to send every member of the team after the ball. Two riders, whom I always called whackers though their position had no formal name, were responsible for this, and their job was to get the ball moving toward the other team's goal. The rest of the team, save one, rode past the site of the face-off like wide receivers, hoping for a pass from one of the whackers. Because it was inefficient to have a goalie riding back and forth in front of the tin cans, one rider circled halfway between the ball and his own goal, sort of a free-safety goalie. At any moment he might ride into the melee, if the situation merited, but it was his responsibility to anticipate and ride down any long shot headed for a goal.
Not surprisingly, the face-off action was the only thing that resembled a diagramed play. As the flow of action became established, you adjusted and played either offense or defense. Knowing if you were on offense or defense was confusing at first, and it wasn't until the third or fourth day of action that we discovered the difference. Then it was simple. The general rule was that you were on offense if the ball was closer to their goal than yours—otherwise, you were on defense.
Offensive and defensive plays—ploys is more accurate—soon developed and became known to the players, although I'm sure they remained a mystery to the spectators. The defensive ploys were by far the most spectacular.
Jim Stephens getting crowned by a mallet head that had flown off someone's handle is the prime example of something that happened many times—the accidental defensive ploy. He was unhurt and returned to the game. That same day we took up a collection and bought, for $12.95, a brand-new croquet set and retired all mallets known to be in poor condition. It was a big expense, but one we believed necessary to preserve some safety in the game. Besides, there were lots of unavoidable injuries.
One defensive tactic that impressed everyone and enjoyed limited status as an acceptable ploy was the rear-wheel check. Ah yes, the very effective rear-wheel check. One of the players accidentally (so he claimed) discovered this when his mallet head got caught between the chain and sprocket of my bike—immediately locking the rear wheel and causing me to skid violently out of control, the bike on its side, me underneath.
However, the rear-wheel check was gentlemanly compared with the front-wheel check. John Zillich invented this when he accidentally missed a swing and put his mallet head through the spokes of Jim Stephens' front wheel. Jim's bike braked abruptly, stood straight up on the front tire and threw Jim over the handlebars to the ground as though he had been tossed by a Brahma bull in a rodeo.
These tactics became known as "spoking," and a halfhearted attempt was made at discouraging them because of the obvious wear on riders, spokes and mallets. But the anti-spoking rule failed miserably. In the first place, spoking was basically accidental. It just happened, and the person with the mallet was as surprised as the person who used to be on the bike. And don't think for a minute that the mallet swinger was immune from bodily harm, either. The mallet was violently wrenched from your grasp, and there was always the possibility of a broken arm. At the very least you ended up with a sore wrist. But the anti-spoking rule failed mostly because of a quirk of human nature. I mean, what if you owed someone a front-wheel check, accidental or otherwise? You might, after all, manage to let loose of the mallet handle just in time.
A more acceptable defensive tactic was broadsiding. Broadsiding was the surest way to discourage a run on an unattended goal. Ron Kuberski executed the most memorable broadside when he took Charlie Johnson—bike polo star, not football player—out of a play and their bikes got stuck together for about five minutes. To this day, nobody can figure out how Ron's tire got wedged into Charlie's bike that way.
Blocking a shot with your bike was a lot surer than relying on the mallet. One of the neatest defensive moves was to approach a rolling ball just so and brake into it, causing the rear wheel to skid sideways at the ball. At other times, with both bike and mallet out of position, there was no option but to run directly over the ball with your front tire. Surprisingly enough, this was a very effective maneuver.
Another good and acceptable defensive ploy was to smack the ball into the leftfield chain-link fence, which obviously slowed the offensive momentum.
But what about offense? Generally, offense was less spectacular and demanded more polish than basic barbaric defense. The secret to scoring was hitting the ball hard and directly in the center. I've never played polo on horseback but I assume the same problems exist with respect to the intensity of the mallet swing. The weakest shot is a head-on shot, i.e., hitting the ball in the same direction you are moving. The anatomy of the human arm explains this. You can get a far more powerful shot by overriding the ball and slamming it, actually backhanding it, in the opposite direction. In addition to being more powerful, the backward shot eliminated the problem of smacking the ball into your own front tire—a common occurrence until we learned how to compensate and hit the ball just off-center on the side closest to the bike. This sent the ball away from the tire but sacrificed power.
By far the most productive shot, and I doubt seriously if it is used on horseback, was to approach the ball from the side, so to speak, and smack it between the moving tires of your own steed. What a shot! What power you could get behind this shot, but it took plenty of practice and expert timing. For one thing, you had to make sure the pedals were out of the way. Ignoring this not-so-obvious detail resulted in a botched shot and sore ankles. Timing was the key. Swinging too soon put the ball (and sometimes the mallet) into your front spokes and resulted in an embarrassing self-inflicted Brahma bull ride. Hitting your own rear spokes was less dramatic but still resulted in a botched shot. The biggest problem was getting the mallet back before the rear tire ran over it. Failing to do so resulted in sore wrists.
Just about everyone mastered or at least developed a between-the-tires shot. There was nothing more rewarding in bike polo than approaching a ball at full speed, riding one-handed and leaning over with the mallet poised, smacking the ball between your own tires and then looking back over your shoulder to see it going between the goal markers. Conversely, there was nothing more embarrassing than having the same open-goal shot and putting the mallet head into your front spokes, the bike standing on end before deciding which way to fall, you meanwhile skidding across the gravel in front of it.
While the between-the-tires shot was the most productive and envied by those who had not mastered it, the so-called chip shot was definitely the most feared. It was possible, with a well-placed hit—the ball and ground at the same time—to lift a croquet ball off the ground sometimes as high as bike-seat level and most certainly as high as shinbone level. The chip shot brought oohs and aahs from the spectators and was respected on the field because it was so difficult to master and hurt like hell if you were in the way.
Spectators? You bet we had spectators. The people in the houses beyond the leftfield fence, who once watched furtively through window curtains for a chance to snatch a home-run ball from their flower beds in time, sat openly on their porches and cheered the action, secure in the knowledge that their windows would not be shattered. Workers walking home from the nearby AC Spark Plug factory stopped and watched through the chain-link fence. Younger kids sat along the sidelines on their useful and still cool bikes and grimaced whenever one of us would leap off ours, throw it to the ground and wrench a rear fender off because it was rubbing against a tire.
Had we been smart and enterprising, we would have passed a hat among the spectators to pay for repairs and bike polo would have lasted a lot longer. Spokes were not cheap to replace, and breaking them put a wheel out of round. Tires wore out quickly with all the high-speed braking on gravel. Chains and sprockets broke. Mallets broke. And even balls broke, sometimes splitting in half along the grain. We went through a complete set of mallets and plenty of balls before so many bicycles gave out that the game had to be abandoned. In fact, bike polo ended just a couple of weeks after its conception. It ended the evening Don Harris showed up with his sister's bike—his was beyond repair—and left with it crumpled in the trunk of someone's '55 Chevy.
But then, '55 Chevies were actually what bike polo was all about.