Confessions of a Lousy Athlete
Good questions, legitimate ones. Almost all guys who became AD at Division l colleges had a lengthy background in sports. Most had either been head football or head basketball coach at their respective institutions. Becoming the AD at their alma mater was a way of giving them a cushy retirement. That all changed in the 1970s - that’s a subject for a future column. As for yours truly, yes, I was not a coach at all; and I was a questionable athlete. I did have some experience in the Athletic Department as a promotions manager and faculty liaison.
Of course like most kids I loved sports. Growing up in the 1940s was far different than today. In recent years, all kids, girls and boys , play all sorts of sports, all receive coaching , and all receive awards, (trophies, certificates, plaques) – regardless of whether they win or lose or even play at all. In the 1940s, there were no little leagues. Back then, baseball was the first sport kids were introduced too. It was THE American past time back then. You usually began playing in the street (softball, not hardball). Trees were the bases (first and third). Second and home were discarded shirts or a piece of cardboard. Games ended either when your Mom called you for dinner, or someone hit a ball through a neighbor’s window – you then ran and hid but always got caught.
Our equipment was primitive. Taped baseballs (wound tight with black electric tape and cracked bats, also taped. For gloves, the most common were the second hand castoffs signed by Chet Laabs or Mayo Smith. Occasionally a neighborhood girl would be permitted to play; she was recognized as a “tomboy” but that was acceptable.
Sometimes the local gang would organize a team of sorts. We would play kids from other neighborhoods at the Mang playgounds. We scrounged for uniforms: blue/gray shirts, and caps were popular. I was the last one chosen for our team so I only got a partial uniform. I was a sub, seems like I was always a sub. I was the 10th guy, if one of the starting 9 got hurt then the team leader would say, “Starr – right field” But if a left hand batter came up, it was “Starr move to left” where I could do less damage.
Kids, we the kids, organized the games ourselves. Parents did not come to our games. That simply did not happen back in the 1940-50s. In his classic work on kids sports when he was a kid, circa.1950, Professor Joseph Epstein notes this:
“With a single exception, I do no recall any parent ever watching us at play. My own parents couldn’t have been less interested. The one exception to a parent being on the scene came in high school … Why the hell wasn’t he working like the rest of our fathers, we wondered?”
Epstein’s book is entitled “Masters of the Games.” It is a “great read” for anyone like myself who grew up playing sports as a kid in the 1940-50s.
In the fall we played football, tackle football. Again we played on a church lawn or if we had more than 7 or 8 kids, we ventured to a nearby community athletic field. Equipment was scarce. Some guys had helmets, some had shoulder pads, a few wore pants with pads. The biggest guy almost always got the ball, the rest of us blocked or tried too. That was the offense. Defense was simply a free for all. The game ended when we wanted it to. There were torn shirts, bruised arms and legs, grimy faces and sweaty bodies. I don’t recall any major injuries. It was fun.
Hockey was seldom played. No one knew much about it. Epstein thought of the sport “as a secret arrangement whereby Canadians are provided with a warm place to stage fistfights.” We did have skates, often double-runners. If there was enough ice on the street, we played there. That was it. Skiing was regarded as an Olympic sport. The closest we came to “skiing” was in Delaware Park, on the hill near Delaware Avenue. We found some wooden slats with rubber bands, broke branches off a tree to use for poles and off we went to frolic in Buffalo’s snow. I spent more time laying in the snow rather than standing on skis. Tennis and golf, we viewed as country club sports, for the wealthy kids. Track, aka running, was a once a year thing. Hundreds of school kids assembled in Delaware Park for an annual race. I was awarded a small cloth AAU patch. Hundreds of other participants received one too.
Basketball was much different. It was made to order for Buffalo winters (that’s why James Naismith invented the sport decades earlier), and especially adopted by parochial school kids. My friends all played basketball. Sometimes we organized games; often we just rounded up a gang and searched for an available gym on Saturdays. We played a lot of basketball. We all had sneakers (usually PF flyers or some $3.95 buster brown type) and shorts and ripped t shirts. Someone always had a ball. In high school we played intramurals, the really tall or skilled guys made the high school team. The rest of us played in CYC and MUNY leagues. Sometimes I thought I was pretty good despite our HS school coach telling me succinctly: “You are too short, too slow and you wear glasses”. I was not humbled. I played all the time even if I was far from a star. I rarely scored. I was labeled a defensive specialist. That meant that they would not pass the ball to me very often; I had to run around guarding someone.
Sports took on new meaning as I grew into my teen years. I earned a few bucks caddying at the Westwood County Club. My pals, Shoes, Zuke and Fring, we all did that. Golf then seemed like something we should try and we did. In fact many Kenmore teens played. I had a cloth bag with a brassie, a 5 iron (or was it a mashie niblick) and a putter. Off we went to Sheridan or Grover Cleveland to flail away. I played ok but as time went on I got worse and by the time I was AD I was just plain awful. The crowning achievement of my golf “career” came at an annual Little Three tournament. At the post tournament banquet I was awarded two handsome trophies: one for my retirement as Canisius Director of Athletics, and the second for having the highest score of the 140 golfers that day. Highest score of course meant the worst. Two trophies, was I ever proud of all that “hardware “.
Tennis I first played in the army in Korea. Yes we did have a tennis court, near our tents, and really not far from Panmunjom and the 38th parallel. Over the years I played quite a bit, often with our tennis coach, the inimitable General Bass. Occasionally I played against a top notch player like Pat Greenwald – then I knew I was - well, a lousy athlete.
I thought I finally reached the heights of my athletic prowess in 1951. Our high school established football and I made the team. In fact, Rich Brinkworth broke a leg, and I became the starting right end. I played all the time, both offense and defense. I loved it. It was fun and it was hard. And we lost all the time, all our games. Early on we lost to the Canisius High School Champs by a mere 53 – 0. I caught two passes, my head swelled. Obviously I was in the market to be awarded a full scholarship” to Notre Dame.
Then came the final game of the season. We played St. Francis in Lackawanna Stadium in a blinding snowstorm before a least 5 or 6 spectators. The game remained scoreless with less than a minute to go. Somehow St. Francis had the ball near the goal line. Actually the lines were invisible in the snow so we took the officials’ word for it (for ball placement). On the final play, the ball came loose. We thought we fell on it, the opponents felt they did. No one could determine or see what really happened. The officials were cold; it was dark and windy. The officials wanted to go home. St. Francis was awarded a TD. We lost again, even if somewhat heroically or questionably. We had lost all our games.
As the years wore on, our football season became mythical. By the time we (the proud Fallon football veterans, especially McAullife, Illos, Eckert and me of that winless 1951 squad) reached retirement, we met at coffee shops or Brunners and told tall tales about the great plays we made, just like the players on championship teams do. We sat around and laughed at our ineptness and how we nevertheless thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Did not some great thinker, perhaps the philosopher/athlete Rene Descartes, once say that that is what sport is all about?