The Joy of Hookying The numbers are in: Blowing off work or school to watch sports is the real national pastime

April 09, 2000

The Chicago Cubs drew 1,254,979 people to 37 weekday afternoon
games at Wrigley Field last year. "Eighty-five percent of the
[bleepin'] world is working," then Chicago manager Lee Elia
memorably said of Cubs fans in 1983. "The other 15 percent come
out here, a [bleepin'] playground for the [bleepers]." Likewise,
the final hours of golf's rain-delayed Players
Championship--broadcast live on NBC on the morning of Monday,
March 27--were seen in 4,400,352 households. Add the number of
Cubs fans attending weekday home games to the number of viewers
watching Monday-morning golf and you get a figure (5,655,331)
nearly identical to the official government estimate of jobless
people in the American labor pool (5,804,000). Could this be the
formula by which the Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates the
unemployment rate, before fudging the figure slightly in a
halfhearted effort to cover its tracks?

The truth is more complicated. The truth is that the majority of
people who watch weekday sports, in person or on TV, are fully
employed or full-time students. They--we--are hardworking,
conscientious men and women who wouldn't think of shirking an
obligation under any circumstance, unless that circumstance is a
Monday (the Reds opener is on ESPN!), a Wednesday (Champions
League soccer is on ESPN2!!), a Thursday (the Bonnies and
Kentucky are in double OT in the tournament!!!) or a Friday
(Tiger just made the turn at Augusta!!!!). On Tuesdays, of
course, we're all yours, boss. Tuesday good for you?

Etymologists will tell you that the late 1840s were the Golden
Age of Hooky. That's when the phrase to play hooky came into
common parlance--from another slang expression, "to hook it," or
to escape (which is precisely what I feel like I'm doing while
sitting at a baseball game on a Thursday afternoon). At that
same time, the gold rush gave us the goldbrick, a covertly lazy
worker, from the worthless, gold-painted bricks sold by
swindlers. In other words, playing hooky and goldbricking are
both American phrases, and thus there's something patriotic
about graduating from the former (as a schoolkid) to the latter
(as an adult), and calling in sick to watch Friday's rounds of
the Ryder Cup.

What could be more American than skipping school or shirking
work this spring to attend (or tune in to) our national pastime?
Ground zero of goldbricking is, as Elia knew so well, Wrigley
Field. When Ferris Bueller hooked school in his cinematic Day
Off, he was captured in close-up on WGN catching a foul ball
while his high school principal stood at a lunch counter, the
Cubs game playing to patrons on a television overhead. Here were
people who knew the illicit joys of hooky and goldbricking, all
to watch sports on a weekday. Kids: Do try this at home, if only
once in your life.

Habitual truancy is wrong. Countless Pittsburghers claim to have
skipped school or smuggled a radio into class on the Thursday
afternoon that Bill Mazeroski's home run won the seventh game of
the '60 World Series for the Pirates. Thirty-seven years later,
a government report claimed that 3,500 students, or 12% of the
pupil population, were absent from Pittsburgh schools every day,
and that 70% of those absences were unexcused. Is this what Maz
has wrought?

"Truancy," warns a Department of Education study, "is the first
indicator that a young person is giving up and losing his or her
way." Truants, says the study, will lead lives of low-paid
drudgery, doomed to do things like compiling statistics on
truancy for alarmist government reports. Indeed, a 1997
government study on employee absenteeism--the adult equivalent
of truancy--found that by far the highest percentage of no-shows
in the 16 industries ranked were those who worked
in...government.

No wonder they keep telling us to stay in school and to get a
job. It means more tickets for them.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)