Like most American boys and men I enjoy sports. I have my preferences. My favorite sport has always been baseball. My second favorite is basketball. Since moving to El Salvador I have become an aficionado of fútbol, what I used to call soccer. As a boy I never participated in soccer. AYSO either wasn’t organized or just hadn’t gotten to Central Jersey. Getting the guys together for a game of softball or baseball was my focus throughout my teens. It didn’t matter if the field was dry or wet. It could be sunny or threatening rain. There could be puddles or deep mud on the base paths. I’d be out looking for someone to start a game.
Basketball didn’t come into my sports schedule until my mid-teens. We had no basketballs or baskets. There were no local recreation centers for the sport. The NBA was in its infancy and wrestling had more TV time–for those few of us who had televisions. But we did manage to put together the Jive Five and play a few years in another town’s Recreation League. I wasn’t very good at it because we had no one to coach us and we really had no roll models to emulate. I became a nominal Boston Celtics fan because a couple of their players’ off-season jobs were playing in the Brooklyn Dodgers’ organization. Football was always available and willing to push those of us who preferred baseball off the field as fall approached. September to me was a bad month. It marked the advent of a new school year and the return of football. I didn’t like football. Someone always wanted to trip you or throw you to the ground. That’s not fun! If you tore your pants or scraped the skin off your leg, you’d probably get in trouble with your mother. It wasn’t worth the effort so a few of us would prolong the baseball season as deeply into autumn as possible. Eventually, we round-ballers would have to give in to the prolate spheroid set and join the bloody “sport”.
Boxing and wrestling are also sports. Boys get into fights sometimes spontaneously over an insulting word or phrase, or some unwelcome physical contact interpreted as a challenge. Other times the fight is scheduled for after school to avoid dealing with teachers and principals. I hated to have to fist fight. You can get bruised and bloody as in football. I could see no sense in settling a difference with fisticuffs. It would be bad enough to earn a black eye for kids to make fun of but hell to answer to your mother. After telling you how stupid you were she’d then call the mother of your opponent to either call her child a bully or to lay the blame on him for hitting first. The kid would get mad because you squealed and he’d be looking for you again the next day. I preferred wrestling.
In wrestling you drastically reduced the chance of shedding blood, scraping skin, or fracturing a bone. The object was to make the other guy “give” by exacting pain or by pinning his shoulders to the ground to a count of three. It therefore helped if you were just a little bigger and stronger than your antagonist and if you knew enough about the best places to apply pressure and pain. That was my forte.
Our exposure to professional sports came via radio and newspapers until television became affordable for we country kids with working class parents. Living so close to and being influenced by all things New York we had our baseball rivalries amongst us. The city had three teams in those days, the New York Giants, the Yankees, and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Interborough rivalry made for great arguments while waiting for the school bus or when choosing up sides. Pro football and basketball never seemed to stimulate such conversations during their respective seasons. In those days the three major sports didn’t overlap as they do today. No one followed hockey.
As television became more common, our sports vision expanded. We could now see professional wrestling and boxing. I remember listening to Joe Louis’ championship fights on radio. Now we could see two men pounding the pudding out of one another. It never appealed to me until Cassius Clay came along.
Wrestling was another matter. My friends and I would often engage in wrestling matches evenings on the front lawn of our local school. Now we could watch Gene Stanlee’s haughty flair and Argentina Rocca’s flying drop-kicks. We had teachers and that made our matches more daring. We had little thought of our heroes being merely athletic actors with predetermined conclusions to their performances. It wasn’t as sophisticated and intricate as today’s WWE enterprise but it was the McMahon dynasty’s baby back in the day.
We were taught the value of sportsmanship. Sports had rules. Sports were judged fairly. Athletes had respect for their opponents. There was no place for trash talk or animosity. At the end of the contest the antagonists shook hands and congratulated each other for their effort. The winner didn’t gloat and the loser didn’t sulk or make excuses. He might promise to do better at their next meeting. We really never thought about the financial aspect of professional sports. We rooted for our team and our favorite players.
With baseball as the dominant sport, we knew our idols had off-season jobs and accepted that as the norm. They lived modestly with their families just as our families lived. Contract signings were more about who would be back for the next season than what their salaries would be. Sports were fun. Players were loyal to (owned by) their teams and fans and were missed when traded. DiMaggio was always a Yankee. Mays a Giant. Musial a Cardinal. Williams a Red Sox. Snider a Dodger. We got used to that.
There have been so many changes, eye-openers to what sports have become during my lifetime. When the Dodgers left Brooklyn for Los Angeles it was like having our right arms amputated. Free agency suddenly emancipated those in bondage to their owners. Players became able to negotiate moves to other teams. Loyalty went out the window. New sources of revenue for Major League Baseball meant the end of post-season jobs to make ends meet. Salaries skyrocketed. Chemical enhancement for performance broke the “unbreakable” records. It became more obvious that it was all about the money. Scandal followed scandal. No one needed to throw a World Series as in 1919.
Leagues in the four major professional sports were able to expand the number of teams. End of season playoffs were also expanded. New markets were opened to increase fan base, sales, and income. Network television lost out to cable and satellite providers but overall viewer numbers increased. Even wrestling with its bad actors in great bodies grew in popularity filling arenas and selling their brands. WWE is everywhere. Vince McMahon, Sr. would be so proud of his son’s growing the family business to where it is now. Rich professional teams are able to buy the best players. College football and basketball team players are now looking for a piece of the action from the NCAA. College sports are big time money makers for schools and sponsors. Be a regular in the top 25 of your sport, qualify for the increasing number of bowl games and March Madness, and watch the money roll in. It’s all about the money not how you play the game. To me it’s very sad.