Uncalloused hands and underdeveloped arms hide the fact, but for four years I was a hay baler. More precisely, I was a Haybaler at Hollister High, in Hollister, Calif. And though I always handled a dinner fork with more dexterity than I did a pitchfork. I cherish my erstwhile rural identity. In contrast to the commonplace nicknames of other schools—the Lions and Tigers and Bears—the nickname Baler provided one, then and now, with an opportunity to stand out.
A few years ago, John Hall, then a sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, offered readers a list of his 10 favorite high school nicknames. Among them were the Bad Axe (Mich.) Hatchets, the Burroughs (Calif.) Burros, the Cuero (Texas) Gobblers, the Haybalers and the Tillamook (Ore.) Cheesemakers.
A respectable effort, but the Bad Axe Hatchets works better as a name for a blood-and-gore drive-in horror movie than for a team of high school kids. Who wants Lizzie Borden as a mascot? The Burros, who may be fine folks, have always been asses. And the Gobblers, no matter how good their team, are still a bunch of turkeys.
Cheesemakers. I like that. Perhaps around campus they're simply the Makers. I know it sounds slightly blasphemous, but imagine the possibilities for sign painters: WILDCATS, PREPARE TO MEET OUR MAKERS. Of course, if the Haybalers and Cheesemakers ever got together, they would be the Haymakers. Now that's a nickname with punch!
But Haybalers or, better yet, Balers is just fine standing on its own. It's strong. It's distinct—a fitting testament to a rich agrarian heritage.
But why Haybalers? Why not Garlic Toppers or Prune Pickers?
Nearly 100 years ago, Hollister stored more hay than any other city in the world. One warehouse alone held 35,000 tons. At times during harvest season, the town was hidden beneath a cloud of dust as wagons laden with hay rolled into Hollister. Hay from San Benito County, of which Hollister is the county seat, was shipped up and down the West Coast, from Seattle to San Diego, and was thought to be a particular favorite with California thoroughbreds. Our little town became known as Hay City.
In the 1920s, when Hollister High began playing football, the local 11 were named the Huskies, not for the dogs, but for the strapping farm boys who played on the team. However, to townspeople as well as outsiders, the boys from Hay City were hay balers. In the end, that's the name that stuck.
In the same way that a person from Hollister was a hay baler to anyone in a neighboring town, so a person from Watsonville was an apple picker and anyone from Gilroy was a prune picker. The teams from small farming towns were quite naturally linked to their agricultural traditions.
As time passed, however, the Apple Pickers became Wildcats and the Prune Pickers became Mustangs. Watsonville probably hasn't seen a wildcat since Juan Cabrillo planted a Spanish flagon the Pacific coast, and the only Mustangs in Gilroy are made by Ford. Homogenization, the hallmark of 20th-century America, has invaded high school athletics.
There are exceptions. In California, we still have the Hayward Farmers and the Tustin Tillers, and Vintage High, in the heart of the Napa wine region, takes the field as the Crushers.
As for the Haybaler, he's tall, dark and well muscled. Decked out in denim overalls (long before they became fashionable) and armed with a pitchfork, the Baler has stood above the wimps of other schools. He is the embodiment of the farmer out in his field. One look at him, and it is clear why he was once called a Husky.
Being a Baler has some minor drawbacks. Rally club members have to avoid certain slogans, such as Hay Fever—Catch It. Unfortunately, over the years some people have mistakenly equated our farming tradition with a lack of sophistication. There are those who assume that everyone in Hollister just fell off the turnip truck. A Haybaler, the thinking goes, is necessarily a hayseed. Absolutely not true. The Hayseeds are our junior varsity teams.
Besides, the rube image is outdated. Most of the hay in San Benito County was long ago displaced by orchards and row crops, which are now being displaced by golf courses and residential tracts. Hollister is becoming a bedroom community for those employed in nearby Silicon Valley.
One cannot stem the tide of "progress," but one can hope that his hometown won't forget its past. I would hate to see our high school teams become the Hollister Hackers. Or Chippies.
Or Lions or Tigers or Bears.