Trivial Pursuit

Sensing that his brain was going soft, the author read the encyclopedia from A to Z ... which is why he now knows more about sports than anyone should
October 10, 2004

There are 44 million words in the Encyclopedia Britannica. I recently read every single one of them and lived to write a book about it. Here, a concise encyclopedia of the best sports trivia.

Basketball -- The score of the first basketball game--played in 1891 with a soccer ball and peach baskets--was 1--0, thanks to a midcourt basket by William R. Chase. Presumably, Chase then signed a multihundred-dollar cream-soda endorsement deal.

Bobsledding -- The name comes from the early belief that if the sledders bobbed their heads back and forth, it would help increase their speed. It didn't, but it did help them look incredibly dorky.

Caravaggio -- The baroque painter Caravaggio was the John McEnroe of his day. He killed a man during a brawl over the score of a tennis match.

Catchers, Multiple -- When baseball was first played, teams had a second catcher behind the regular catcher whose job was to field foul balls. What Mike Piazza would give for that.

Football -- Football players in 1905 killed more people on the field than current players do off the field. Eighteen players died from injuries during the college season. Teddy Roosevelt had a presidential commission investigate. From that came a shorter game and the forward pass.

Gloves, Boxing -- Bare-knuckle boxing, oddly enough, caused less brain damage than gloved boxing. The combatants didn't want to hurt their hands, so they rarely hit an opponent's head.

Gold Medals -- An Olympic gold medal is actually silver, plated with six grams of gold. So Marion Jones can take comfort in that.

Golf -- Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Scots did not invent golf. The true inventors were the Dutch. The Scots, though, did give us the first woman golfer--Mary, Queen of Scots. A literal golf widow, she got arrested for playing golf too soon after the death of her husband.

Heisman, John -- The legendary football coach--he of the trophy--was also a noted Shakespearean actor. His pep talks were often peppered with Bard-speak, and he called the football a "prolate spheroid." Sounds like Bill Parcells and his love of quoting Henrik Ibsen. Well, maybe I just imagined that last part.

Lacoste, René -- The 1920s French tennis star was nicknamed the Crocodile because of his love for fancy crocodile luggage. Yes, that thing on the Izod shirt is a crocodile, not an alligator.

Lacrosse -- The first Native American games had goals that were miles apart, lasted three days and had a thousand players on each side, causing untold psychological trauma to the Native American who was picked last for his team.

Losers -- New York Giants manager Leo Durocher did not say, "Nice guys finish last." He really said, "The nice guys over there are in seventh place." These days, seventh place is still good enough to make the NBA playoffs.

Marathon -- The modern marathon is 26 miles and 385 yards long because the British Olympic Committee in 1908 wanted it to go from Windsor Castle to the Royal Box in London Stadium. Runners huffing through those final 385 yards can take comfort in the fact that the king's butt was comfortably in the shade that day.

Melee -- The predecessor to soccer. This 11th-century British game was first played with the head of an enemy Danish soldier.

Moat -- Speaking of rowdy soccer games, Latin American stadiums in the 1950s had moats to prevent fans from storming the field.

The Opposition -- The Opposition is the official team name of the guys who play the Harlem Globetrotters. The most pathetic job in the encyclopedia, not counting that of French soldier.

Paige, Satchel -- The great African-American pitcher would do almost anything to play a game. He once put on a fake red beard and played for the bearded House of David team. The House of David, by the way, was a baseball-loving apocalyptic cult that mandated facial hair. Probably one of the top five baseball-loving apocalyptic cults with mandatory facial hair.

Violence -- Bearbaiting was a popular sport in 17th-century England: A bear was tied to a stake, and trained dogs were set upon it. Other variations included a bull tied to a stake and a pony with an ape tied to his back. Sounds like Fox might have itself a new sports franchise!

Volleyball -- It was originally called mintonette. And if that's not bad enough, it was designed for businessmen who found the new game of basketball too vigorous.

And for those who find mintonette too vigorous, there's always reading the encyclopedia.

A.J. Jacobs is the author of The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World (Simon & Schuster).

"Lewis's plea agreement will send him to prison for four months." --RUSH FROM JUDGMENT, PAGE 23

COLOR ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION: STEVE BRODNER

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
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