Day 979: A (Football) Tale Of Three Cities

originally published September 5, 2014

Fans of American football are no doubt giddy with delight in the afterglow of last night’s victory by the Seattle Seahawks over the Green Bay Packers – the first actual game we have seen in seven months. Non-fans of American football most likely stopped reading this article after the headline, or after they realized this has nothing to do with soccer-football. That’s okay, not everyone shares the same sports-page passions – a fact that becomes resoundingly evident every year as the city around me leaps to their feet at the start of hockey season.

Younger fans of the game might not recall that this 13-season stability we have seen in team names and locations is unprecedented in the history of the league. The 20th century saw several clubs shuffle around the country in search of a permanent home. Most every move was money-based, each one was reviled by fans, and some took place under dubious circumstances.

No team relocation was handled quite so strangely as the Baltimore Colts’ mysterious overnight disappearance to Indianapolis. It was a figurative stab at the collective heart of Colts fans, and a cloak-and-dagger escapade that would leave a gaping wound in the spirit of the city. A wound that would not heal for more than a decade, when Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell was ready to inflict a similar agony upon the football devoted of his own city.

Memorial Stadium. Home of the Baltimore Colts since their inaugural year in 1953, and home of baseball’s Orioles for even longer. By the early 1970’s, it needed a facelift. 10,000 of the seats had lousy views, 20,000 seats were just wooden benches with no back support, and both pro teams had to share office space and locker rooms. Colts owner Robert Irsay tried to work with the city to land some new digs for his team.

In fact, things went the other way. Hyman Pressman, the city comptroller, was so adamantly against using public funds for a new stadium, he actually pushed for an amendment to the city’s charter, calling the stadium a veterans’ memorial and prohibiting the use of public money to build another stadium. This passed in 1974; unsurprisingly, Irsay began fielding offers from other cities right around that time.

Phoenix, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Memphis and Jacksonville were all trying to woo the Colts out of Baltimore. Indianapolis fought hardest, going so far as to build the Hoosier Dome when there was no pro team scheduled to play there. The NFL gave their blessing for a move, which is when the officials – the same ones who had denied any funding for a new stadium – stepped in.

The Maryland State Senate passed legislation on March 27, 1984, allowing the city of Baltimore to seize ownership of the Colts by eminent domain. Irsay was about to lose his team in a political move of confounding dickery. The next day, Phoenix withdrew their offer while Indianapolis finalized theirs. The House of Delegates was set to vote the bill into law on March 29. Irsay had less than 24 hours to get his team out of Baltimore before the city seized it.

He had a plan.

Robert Irsay called his buddy, John B. Smith. Smith owned Mayflower Transit, a moving company based out of Indiana. Fifteen Mayflower trucks were rushed to Memorial Stadium at 2:00am on the morning of March 29. The trucks were loaded with equipment, paperwork, furniture and everything that was the Baltimore Colts. Each truck took a unique route out of town, just in case the Maryland State Police caught them and tried to enforce the eminent domain law that was destined to be signed later that day. Once they were in Indiana, an Indiana State Police escort met each truck and guided it to their new home.

A few hours later, the bill was signed into law by Governor Harry Hughes. But by then it was too late – the team was gone.

Later that year, Baltimore voters repealed the law prohibiting the use of public funds for a new stadium. They wanted football back, but the USFL’s Baltimore Stars (who won the 1985 championship) and later the CFL’s Baltimore Stallions (who won the 1995 Grey Cup) weren’t sufficient. Fortunately, Art Modell in Cleveland was ready to be wooed.

Modell had been earning globs of cash from operating Cleveland Municipal Stadium since 1973. In 1993, those globs turned to tiny globulettes when Major League Baseball’s Indians found a new home. Between ’93 and ’94, Modell lost somewhere in the neighborhood of $21 million. He wasn’t getting any immediate support from city council, so on November 6, 1995, he announced to the press that he’d be moving the team to Baltimore. Right in the middle of the football season.

Browns fans hadn’t seen this coming. The team was coming off of an 11-5 season which had included a decent playoff run, and while they were looking rather stagnant that fall at 4-5, fans were optimistic that the team’s talent could bounce back. The outrage was fierce. Protests were launched. T-shirts were made. Drew Carey showed up at a rally, but somehow the presence of the actor/comedian failed to change Art Modell’s mind. The team was doomed.

The Cleveland Browns won one only more game that season: a 26-10 victory over Cincinnati to close down the droopy gloom of Cleveland Municipal Stadium.

The one glimmer of optimism granted to the city of Cleveland was the unusual precedent that was set with this move. When the Colts left Baltimore, their legacy travelled with them to Indianapolis (though Baltimore was allowed to keep their lone Lombardi Trophy for winning Super Bowl V). This was standard procedure: the Raiders took their legacy from Oakland to Los Angeles and back again, the Cardinals took their legacy (flimsy as it was) from St. Louis to Arizona, and so on. But Cleveland got an exception.

The Baltimore Ravens were treated as a new NFL team. The Browns’ history stayed in Cleveland, where  a new team was to be launched in 1999 with the same name. This had never been done before. This concept of perpetual civic sports legacy rights would pop up again in other leagues later on. Seattle still holds the legacy of the SuperSonics, even though their NBA team took off for Oklahoma City in 2008. Baseball’s Minnesota Twins have a similar arrangement in place, just in case they are ever moved.

It was a strange game of franchise-musical-chairs. Indianapolis is happy; they have been a winning team in all but one year of this century. Baltimore is thrilled; the Ravens have won two Super Bowls since jetting out of Cleveland. And Cleveland… well, the Browns have been the league’s crap-bucket for the last 15 years.

But at least they have a team.

Day 940: The Fists That Punched The Olympics

originally published July 28, 2014

The morning of October 15, 1968, just four days of sun-bathed pomp and cheer into Mexico City’s Olympic games, was perfect for a foot race. Australian speedster Peter Norman blasted through his 200-meter quarterfinal race like a sugar addict in the opening throes of a pixie stick; he finished in 20.17 seconds, a new Olympic record. After coming in second in his semifinal, his motor was cackling in high gear for that final sprint, due to take place the following day.

Alas, the wind parted not for Peter in that final round. While he finished with a boast-worthy 20.06 – an Australian record that still stands some forty-six years later – the gold went to American Tommie Smith. Another American, John Carlos, poked his nose past the finish line just 0.04 seconds after Peter, meaning Peter was to find himself sandwiched between a pair of Yanks on the podium. No matter, it was still a day for the books.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos approached Peter after the race, and asked him if he believed in human rights. He did. Then they asked if he believed in God. No doubt feeling a smidge uneasy about this bizarre line of questioning, Peter replied that yes, he did. He’d been raised in a Salvation Army household – a military brat for Jesus, if you will – and his belief in God was as sturdy as any Stenocereus cactus popping out of the Mexican sand. Then the Americans confessed what they planned to do on the podium.

The raised fist was a symbol of Black Power, an emblem of a cultural struggle for basic human equality that at the time was pummeling America from a racist nation into a… a slightly less racist nation. Yes, the Black Power clenched-fist was also thrust in the air by those militant few who exercised their violent tendencies for that cause, but six months had passed since Martin Luther King’s assassination; more than anything, Tommie and John were making a solemn statement for equality.

Peter Norman’s reaction was humbling. He knew this statement, in particular chiming across television airwaves in that precarious slice of history when the quest for civil rights was a viable, almost graspable victory, was more important than any athletic triumph. He encouraged them, he applauded them. “I’ll stand with you,” he told them. John Carlos later said he’d expected to see fear in Peter’s eyes, fear that the moment of athletic achievement he’d spent his entire life striving for was about to be lost in the swampy story of a quiet protest. But John saw no fear. “I saw love,” he said.

On the way to the podium, Peter spotted American rower Paul Hoffman wearing a badge for the OPHR, the Olympic Project for Human Rights. He borrowed it. The Americans wanted to wear black gloves as part of their salute, but John Carlos had left his black gloves back in the Olympic Village. Norman suggested they split the one pair; John could salute with his left hand. The Star-Spangled Banner started playing and the two fists were raised.

As the newswires lit up around the globe, the Olympics finally delivering a front-page story meatier than a medal tally, the crowd went nuts. The athletes were booed as they left the podium, and the International Olympic Committee immediately began crafting their response. Tommie Smith expressed no regret. “If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”

Avery Brundage was not Black America. He was the president of the IOC – the first and only American ever to hold that position – and he felt this “domestic political statement” had no place on an Olympic podium. The Games are famous for being wholly apolitical, or so the IOC has always stated. He ordered Tommie and John to be suspended from the US team and banned from the Olympic Village. The US Olympic Committee stood behind their athletes and refused, at which point Brundage threatened to ban the entire American track team from the rest of the Games. Tommie Smith and John Carlos were sent home.

Keep in mind, Avery Brundage was president of the American Olympic contingent back in 1936, and made no complaints when German athletes performed the Nazi salute after a win. That was a national salute, Brundage claimed, while Tommie and John were making a totally different statement. It should also be noted that Brundage was an outspoken Nazi sympathizer, even after the outbreak of World War II, and it was one of the stated aims of the OPHR to have Brundage removed from office.

Whether or not Black America supported the salute (and I suspect for the most part they did), the rest of the nation was split. Their families received death threats – that’s right: death threats. They brought home two medals for their country, but for stretching a closed hand toward the sky for a few seconds, people threatened to murder their families. Their careers as track stars were practically shmushed. However, as with most acts of pathetic racism in America, the sparkly looking glass of hindsight eventually shifted the country’s collective outlook.

Both had brief careers in football – Tommie with the Cincinnati Bengals and John with the Philadelphia Eagles. Tommie became a track coach and received the California Black Sportsman of the Millennium Award in 1999. John Carlos overcame the front-page story and tied the world record for the 100-meter dash the following year. He worked as part of the team that brought the Olympics to Los Angeles in 1984. Their stories ended happily.

But Peter Norman’s? Not so much.

Australia’s Olympic honchos railed against Peter’s complicity with the salute. He may only have worn a Human Rights badge beside the Americans, but he was utterly lambasted in the Australian media. Over the next four years Peter hit a qualifying time for the 100-meter run five times and for the 200-meter run thirteen times, yet he was not invited by his own country to the 1972 Olympics in Munich. In fact, Australia opted not to send any track athletes to those games, the first time in the history of the modern Olympics that they stayed off the track. Perhaps they were afraid Peter Norman would embarrass the country again by standing beside people whose arms weren’t positioned at the appropriate angle.

Peter finally appeared as a hero once again when the Olympics were held in Sydney in 2000. Oh, not by the Australians; they went out of their way to avoid including the silver-medal-winner in any way, either in the lead-up hype or as part of the traditional Opening Ceremonies national tribute to themselves. No, it was the Americans who, upon learning that Peter was getting the shaft from his home country, invited him to stand proudly with them.

Fortunately, Australia did get around to officially apologizing to Peter in a 2012 formal statement. They acknowledged that he should have been sent to Munich in 1972, that he should have been heralded as much as any Olympic winner over the previous 40 years, and that his quiet but assertive stand on racial equality was perhaps not such a bad thing. Unfortunately, Peter never received the apology. He passed away from a heart attack in 2006 at age 64. Tommie Smith and John Carlos were both pallbearers and eulogy deliverers at his funeral.

It was a mighty quiver of unfathomable consequence that erupted from this one small, silent plea for basic human decency. And it makes for one hell of a gut-punching photograph, doesn’t it?

Day 926: Cleveland Rocks! (As Long As You Aren’t Talking Sports)

originally published July 14, 2014

Like a vintage facial scar or a controversial Foghorn Leghorn tie, I am proud to wear my fandom for Cleveland sports teams, boldly and without a micron of hesitation. While my tootsies have yet to come in contact with Cleveland soil – in fact, I’m not certain any member of my direct lineage has crossed the threshold into the Metropolis of the Western Reserve – I nevertheless cheer on their teams with a curious zeal.

Why is that? What compels my soul to that southeastern elbow of Lake Erie? From Eastlake to Olmstead, from Brook Park to Shaker Heights, there’s something about this blue collar town – a town that hasn’t scored a professional sports championship in fifty solid, dreary years – that appeals to me. Not in an I-want-to-live-there sort of way; I just want these stalwart fans to have some reason to cheer.

Some 732 days ago (hey, that’s two years and two days!) I wrote about the Cleveland Browns’ unfathomable seven league championships and ten championship game appearances in a ten-year span in the 1940’s-50’s, just as they transitioned from the AAFC to the NFL. The Browns were unstoppable. Well, except for those three years they didn’t win. But that’s pretty damn close to unstoppable.

Nowadays, Cleveland teams can barely get started.

Cleveland Indians fans call it the Curse of Chief Wahoo. The Chief has been the official (and moderately racist) face of the franchise since 17-year-old Walter Goldbach crafted the cartoonish visage in 1947. Sportswriters took to calling the symbol by the strange yet remarkably joyous name of Chief Wahoo shortly thereafter, though Goldbach ostensibly disagreed with the moniker. In a 2008 interview he pointed out that chiefs tend to sport a full headdress, whereas Wahoo’s lone feather would make him a brave. That didn’t cause Clevelanders to rescind the name, though it probably inspired a few chuckles from Atlanta baseball fans.

The smiling Cleveland Indian has been a source of controversy for decades, not unlike the perennial pouting that arises over the Washington Redskins’ name. But has this caricature weighed down the team’s fortunes? Is their record a reflection of some grand karmic design? Those who believe in such things might nod vehemently in assent; after all, the last time the Indians won a World Series was 1948 – only one year after Chief Wahoo’s creation.

In the grand history of trade-related curses, the Curse of Rocky Colavito apparently also plagues the Indians’ hopes of a victorious Series. In 1959, Rocky Colavito was the home run champ and the hitting champ, with a whopping .359 batting average. The Indians inexplicably traded him to Detroit, an act which purportedly had the same cosmic resonance as the moment the Red Sox allowed Babe Ruth to stroll into the Yankees’ locker room. The Indians wouldn’t finish within eleven games of first place between 1960 and 1993. They were perpetual basement-dwellers.

A myriad of other wholly unrelated events have been linked to the Curse of Colavito, including pitcher Sam McDowell’s alcoholism and left fielder Tony Horton’s mental illness, which caused the heavy hitter to retire from the game at age 25. Since 1995, the team has had a few competitive years. They finished first that year, a record 30 games ahead of the #2 Kansas City Royals, and were heavily favored to win it all. They lost World Series in six games, beaten by baseball’s other mildly racist Native American juggernaut, the Atlanta Braves.

Football has “The Catch”, and basketball has “The Shot”. The Cleveland Cavaliers were on the losing end of this athletic triumph, as the Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan leapt magnificently over guard Craig Ehlo with less than three seconds to go, scoring the basket that would put Chicago up 101-100 and win them the game. That was Game 5, the deciding game of the series that would knock the Cavs out of the playoffs. And wow, did they ever need that win.

In their first 16 years in the league, the Cavaliers had only three winning seasons. When it finally looked like they had the superstar they’d need to launch them to the league’s peak, LeBron James decided to pack up and score his championships in Miami. LeBron is making his way back to C-Town this fall though, so we’ll see if he can hoist this city’s hopes back above the horizon. Or if he’ll slide into a nasty career slump.

Though they are the most recent Cleveland team to win a league championship (they lopped the proverbial heads off Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts 27-0 in the final 1964 game), the Cleveland Browns perhaps best exemplify the sports curse that seems to hover over the city of Cleveland like some unidentifiable stench. On the fourth day of 1981, the Browns trailed the Oakland Raiders by only two points with less than a minute to play. They were on the Oakland 13 – all they had to do was kill the clock with a  run or two and kick the winning field goal. Coach Sam Rutigliano called “Red Right 88”. A pass play. Safety Mike Davis intercepted the ball for Oakland, and it was the Raiders who went on to beat San Diego and subsequently win Super Bowl XV.

In 1987 they were one win away from the big game, when John Elway led the Denver Broncos on the infamous 98-yard march down the field known as The Drive. The game went into overtime as a result of Denver’s tying score and the Broncos won it by 3. The Browns and Broncos faced off again the following year, again in the AFC Championship game. Running back Earnest Byner fumbled on the Denver 2-yard-line on what should have been the tying score in the 4th quarter. In NFL lore this is known as The Fumble.

The Fumble. The Drive. The Shot. For Cleveland fans, it has been little more than an unending parade of crappy disappointment for the last fifty years.

In 1995 Cleveland lost more than a championship; they lost the Browns. In a skull-thwacking controversial move, owner Art Modell shipped his team off to become the Baltimore Ravens. Four years later the team would be reborn in Cleveland, but fans would be forced to endure the Ravens’ triumphant Super Bowl victory at the end of the 2000 season. That should have been their win. Game MVP Ray Lewis should have been their guy.

Alas, the refashioned Browns have yet to scrape themselves off the gritty dirt-pile of irrelevancy. They appeared in one playoff game since their return (a 2002 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers) while the team Baltimore inherited has coasted to two Super Bowl wins. Hell, the Browns haven’t won more than six games in a season since 2007.

Nevertheless, every year the seats are filled for all three Cleveland teams – perhaps not to capacity, but to the point where one cannot dispute the resilient loyalty in this city. Cleveland teams are the Wile E. Coyote of the pro sports world: seemingly destined for disaster, yet cheered on by the masses. There is truly no greater underdog than a Cleveland franchise; how could any lover of sport not consider themselves a fan?

Day 896: When Footy Gets Kooky

originally published June 14, 2014

Chances are, if you’ve even so much as sneezed in the same room as a computer connected to the internet this week, you’ve absorbed some snippet of World Cup fever. The World Cup is the most watched sporting event in the world – more so than the Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Full-Contact Bare-Knuckle Finger-Jousting Championships combined. And due to the current impressive girth of our pudgy modern internet, which is just right for streaming the games to every interested PC, tablet and phone, they’re predicting this to be the widest audience for anything, ever.

Soccer is the ultimate sport to bridge together the citizens of this floating rock, mostly because the rules are simple and you can make a workable ball out of trash and/or roadkill. It’d be hard for a poor rural village to fashion together functional sticks to play hockey, hoisted-up hoops to play basketball or crudely-crafted anabolic steroids to play baseball. Soccer (or “football” – I know, I know) is where it’s at.

Apart from the degenerate wuss-bags who perform acts of atrocious theatre in hopes of drawing a foul for the other team, soccer really is a great game. And even though I’ll be spending the next few weeks getting caught up on the new season of Orange Is The New Black, I might allow myself to sip just a little bit of the tournament’s excitement. After all, soccer can – in rare cases – get a little weird.

In my neighborhood, local interest for the qualification round of the 1994 Caribbean Cup was pretty much nil. But for fans in Grenada, the January 27 game against Barbados was huge. Having lost to Puerto Rico already, Barbados would have to win by two points in order to advance to the final round and bump Grenada out. For a country perpetually mired in revolutions and/or hurricanes, this was a big deal.

The Barbados national team did their job and racked up a 2-0 lead. Then, at the 83-minute mark, Grenada scored. With a limited amount of time to reclaim their necessary lead, Barbados kicked up their gameplay.  Still, they couldn’t get through that defense. Time was running out, but there was a catch in the tournament’s small print that could help them. It was a little quirk of an rule known as the modified Golden Goal.

A golden goal is simply another way of describing a sudden-death overtime period: first team that scores is the winner. But under the bizarre rules of this particular Caribbean Cup tournament, the first goal scored in extra-time not only wins the match but it also counts as two goals. Under these rules, an extra-time win for Barbados would mean a 4-2 victory, and they – not Grenada – would be in the final round. So, in order to take advantage of this rule, Barbados switched tactics with about three minutes to go and proceeded to score a goal on their own net. It was 2-2.

The Grenada players weren’t stupid (well, some of them might have been – I really don’t know for sure, do I?). They figured out that if they scored on either net they’d advance to the finals and foil Barbados’ chances, either because they won or because they lost by a single point. The last three minutes of the match consisted of Grenada trying to score in both directions while Barbados tried to defend both goals. It was a bit surreal. But it worked; the clock ran out on Grenada and they were forced into extra-time.

Barbados scored the winner, nabbing their 4-2 win and a trip to the final round. Karma caught up with them there, when two draws and a loss bumped them out of the tournament. The tweaked golden goal rule was used five times over the course of the 1994 Caribbean Cup (though this was the only occurrence of such chaotic strangeness), after which the rule was dropped completely.

While we won’t likely see any of this year’s World Cup teams fighting to score on their own net this month, we can still hope for something strange to go down. It probably won’t get wilder than some overly-demonstrative goal celebration, but there’s no reason we can’t keep our eyes peeled for more.

The 1998 Tiger Cup, held in Vietnam, was the championship tournament of the ASEAN Football Federation. Unless you follow Southeast Asian soccer you probably haven’t heard the story of the infamous Thailand-Indonesia match during the group stage of this competition. Both teams were assured of making the semifinals, and this game only determined who they’d play. Vietnam was seen as the more formidable foe, and since the winner would be off to play Vietnam, neither team wanted to put in a lot of effort.

It was a plodding game, with both teams doing everything they could to half-heartedly kick at the ball without scoring. The defense was also playing weakly, allowing for two goals per team when the clock hit 90 minutes. Mursyid Effendi of Indonesia put the game to bed during injury time, by planting the ball deep into his own net. Indonesia earned the right to play Singapore instead – a game they lost.

Thailand also lost to Vietnam, and ultimately it was Singapore who rose to the top of the tournament. Effendi was banned from international play for life and both teams were fined $40,000 by FIFA, who were not impressed by their commitment to failure.

Those of you who diligently follow Madagascar football are no doubt wondering when I’ll get around to that historic match between AS Adema and Stade Olympique de l’Emryne (whom we’ll call SOE because that name is a fingerfull of typing).

The setting is a four-team round robin playoff to decide the national championship. Entering the final game on Halloween, 2002, AS Adema already knew they had won. SOE had been eliminated in the previous game, due to a much-disputed penalty. Coach Zaka Be and the rest of the SOE team were so infuriated by the tournament’s crappy officiating, they decided to stage a protest. From the moment of the opening kickoff, the SOE players passed it to one another, booting the ball into their own goal. 149 times.

There were refund demands, impending suspensions for the coach and several players, and a downright amused AS Adema team, who claimed their championship after an unfathomable 149-0 victory.

That’s the kind of craziness I’m hoping to see – but not counting on – during the 2014 World Cup. Oh well. Even if nothing out of the ordinary occurs, at least this will kill half the time between now and the start of preseason in the NFL. We’ve all got our own favorite styles of football.

Day 883: The Starlet Of The Sports Pages

originally published June 1, 2014

“It would be much better if she and her ilk stayed at home, got themselves prettied up and waited for the phone to ring.”

So said sportswriter Joe Williams of the New York Herald-Tribune. He was writing a critical (and overtly misogynistic) piece about Babe Didrikson-Zaharias. Babe’s name is anything but household today, though at the time she was the most important woman in the world of sports.

To claim that Babe was the single greatest female athlete of the 20th century would not be an unmerited hyperbole; she played a myriad of sports and excelled at every one of them. Babe was tough, she was brilliant, and she wasn’t afraid to be an “athlete” instead of a “woman who plays sports”. She hammered out her own identity and handled all her own PR. How her life story remains unknown to so much of the general populace today, I have no idea; we all know Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Arnold Palmer, Red Grange… and those schmucks only mastered one sport apiece.

Babe Didrikson-Zaharias conquered most of the sports section, game by game.

Mildred Didriksen (she’d later change the ‘-en’ to ‘-on’) was born to Norwegian parents in Port Arthur, Texas – also the birthplace of Janis Joplin. She took the nickname ‘Babe’ from her mother’s childhood pet name for her, though she’d later claim she was given the nickname in honor of Babe Ruth after she’d hit five home runs in a childhood baseball game. Her version of the nickname origin was an exaggeration, though I suspect the baseball story is true.

Her first big victory was in a sew-off at the South Texas State Fair in Beaumont. Babe was exceptional when it came to competition, but not so much at school. She dropped out before graduation and moved to Dallas to play basketball. She was hired as a ringer player for the Employers’ Casualty Insurance Company, which had a team (the Golden Cyclones) that played in the Amateur Athletic Union. She led the Cyclones to a championship in 1931, but basketball was not the mighty thump that propelled her heart to beat. For that, she had track and field.

At the 1932 AAU Championships, Babe competed in eight out of the ten scheduled events. She won five and tied for first in a sixth. In doing so, she set world records for 80-meter hurdles, javelin, high jump and baseball throw. Four world records – and it was all accomplished in a single afternoon. I take back what I said a few paragraphs back; Babe might have been the greatest athlete of the century, period. She followed up this triumphant day with a visit to the Los Angeles Olympics that same year, where she won silver in the high jump and gold in the hurdles and javelin throw.

In 1932, the number of American women who were making a living as a professional athlete numbered somewhere between zero and nil. Babe sought to change that. In addition to her expertise at diving, roller skating and bowling, Babe also took up baseball, playing with the all-male House of David team. During an exhibition game she struck out Joe DiMaggio. It was mind-boggling for anyone watching, but there was no financial future in baseball for Babe – the pro leagues would never let her play. Next, it was off to vaudeville.

Babe teamed up with pianist George Libby in the early 1930’s and toured the Chicago area. She sang, danced, ran on a treadmill and played a touching rendition of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” on the harmonica. Sometimes she performed in as many as five shows daily. It was a living, though with travelling stage spectaculars fading from the public’s must-see list, it wasn’t much of one.

Babe landed in the papers again when she was trounced by professional billiards player Ruth McGinnis in a straight pool tournament in New York. She wasn’t good enough to win, but she was good enough to make the tournament. In addition to her theatrical career, she also pulled in some cash touring with the Babe Didrikson’s All-Americans basketball team. When she took up golf in 1935, it seemed like that would be yet another notch of many on her multi-faceted career. No one – not even Babe herself – knew that this would be the game that would truly define her.

In January of 1938, Babe competed in the Los Angeles Open, an official PGA event. Not until Annika Sörenstam would play in the 2003 Bank of America Colonial tournament would another woman even try to make a PGA event. Babe missed the cut, but was teamed up with George Zaharias, a professional wrestler known as the “Crying Greek from Cripple Creek”. The two would be married less than a year later, and it would be with the name ‘Babe Zaharias’ that she would conquer the world of golf.

Babe was the first female golf celebrity, and the sport’s most celebrated woman throughout the 1940’s and 50’s. She won the 1946 US Women’s Amateur and became the first American to win the British Ladies Amateur the following year. She turned pro in 1947 and helped to found the LPGA. Along the way she continued to pop up in the PGA, and remains the only woman ever to have made the cut in a regular PGA Tour event. She qualified for the 1948 US Open, but the United States Golf Association wouldn’t let her play due to her lack of a penis. Such was the backward state of professional sport; this was probably around the time Joe Williams penned that delightful criticism about what Babe ‘should’ do.

Somewhere along the way, Babe found time for a music career. That’s her with Betty Dodd, who was also a competitive player in the brand-new LPGA. Betty and Babe were close… extremely close. At one point Betty moved in with the Zahariases, and I have stumbled upon no less than four sources that claim that Betty and Babe were most definitely lovers. With Betty singing and Babe blowing the harmonica, the two released a handful of songs on Mercury Records in the early 50’s. Because why shouldn’t she conquer the music industry too?

Babe scored the Grand Slam of the LPGA in 1950, winning all three majors: the US Open, Titleholders Championship and the Women’s Western Open. She won ten tournaments in one year and 20 days, a record that still stands. More than two decades since she’d dominated at the Olympics, and the world of athletics was still under Babe’s command. Then along came colon cancer, which sidelined her in 1953.

For about a month.

It was one month out of surgery, a colostomy bag still attached to her leg, when she won the Vare Trophy for the lowest scoring average and took her 30th win at the 1954 Women’s Open. Even when the cancer returned in 1955, she still managed two more wins. She passed away at the top of her game in September, 1956 – only 45 years old.

A handful of athletes have triumphed in multiple sports, but only Babe could have flown from the pinnacle of amateur basketball to the heights of Olympic gold to pioneering the female presence in one of the most popular games in the world. There was a TV movie made about her life in 1975, called Babe. The film starred Susan Clark (and earned her an Emmy) as Babe, as well as former NFL star Alex Karras as George Zaharias. And just as Babe and George fell in love when their professional circumstances had paired them together, Susan and Alex would also become an item. In fact, the two of them launched and starred in the successful sitcom Webster, and remained together up until Alex’s death in 2012.

Even Babe’s legacy created great things. Hers is a name worth knowing.

Day 764: Happy Super Day!

originally published February 2, 2014

As you may have noticed by the disturbing lack of available Doritos at your local corner store, today is among the most revered and holy days in western culture. No, not the groundhog thing – around here that’s just a joke anyway. I live in a town where six more weeks of winter after February 2nd is actually a shorter sentence than we’re used to. No, it’s Super Bowl Sunday, the day when western culture grinds to a 3.5-hour halt in front of its TV. 

But not everyone is a football fan. I get that. I live in a country where the blood is only as red as the centre line and our footsteps echo with the clatter of pucks against a garage door. American football fans here are more scarce. I grew up with a father who poured a heaping bowl of football into my Sundays every fall and winter, and I’ve found a distinct advantage to being an NFL fan in Canada: I have no geographical obligations, team-wise. I can cheer for the Denver Broncos because Peyton Manning is a blast to watch, but I can also get excited when the Seattle Seahawks show off a cartilage-crumbling defense. 

So I’m a fan of 31 out of 32 teams (I still can’t bring myself to like the Patriots – they’re just so damn smarmy). Today’s game will feature the two teams who most deserve to be there, and I’ll be riveted to the screen – Big Rock beer in hand and home-made chili tickling my palate. And since I won’t be slapping a kilograph onto my creative grill every day next year at this time, I will take this last topical opportunity to write a little something about the big game. 

On the left is former NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, presenting the sacred world championship trophy to Green Bay Packers’ coach Vince Lombardi after his team had won the first Super Bowl in 1967. Four years later, once the upstart American Football League had sewn its hem permanently to the NFL and the Super Bowl had officially acquired its name, the trophy was posthumously named in Lombardi’s honor. Unlike the Stanley Cup, which is perhaps the most sacred single trophy in professional sports, a new Lombardi trophy is minted every year for the winning team. 

Tiffany & Co. designed the trophy of course, and they continue to produce them today. There may be 48 of these things out there now, but they are still prized by the teams who have earned them. Except for that one that Baltimore won in Super Bowl V (the first one named Lombardi); in the settlement when the Colts relocated to Indianapolis, the trophy remained with the city. 

It takes a lot of work to snag this little 22 inches of sterling silver. 

The whole point of the Super Bowl was to pit the top teams of each major league against one another to determine the true champion. I’m of the belief that the NFL wanted to show its dominance over the 7-year-old AFL, which it did in the first two games. But by the time the championship game was dreamt up, the merger of the two leagues was already on the table. 

As I pointed out, the game was known as the World Championship for the first few years, though the name ‘Super Bowl’ was first jotted down in a letter to Pete Rozelle by Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt prior to the 1966 season that would end with his team battling the Packers in the big game. So the nickname was there from the start, at least on the tip of a few tongues. 

The other big prize (apart from fame, endorsements and that immaculate feeling of absolute accomplishment) is the Super Bowl ring. The rings are made from yellow or white gold, and can feature more than 100 diamonds apiece. The NFL will spring for 70 rings for the winning team today, which will be given to players, coaches, management, and whomever else the team feels deserves the honor. In some cases, former players might even get a ring; Edgerrin James, the halfback for the Indianapolis Colts throughout most of their mighty seasons in the early part of the last decade, was given a ring when the Colts won the big game in 2007, despite the fact that he hadn’t been on the team all year. 

The rings aren’t priceless, but they are damn valuable. Lawrence Taylor’s son sold one of his dad’s rings (the 1990 one) for $250,000. Only one player has won five rings on the field – Charles Haley, who smothered opposing quarterbacks during two of San Francisco’s dominant years and three more when the Dallas Cowboys won it all. The record for ring ownership belongs to Neal Dahlen, who won five as part of the San Francisco 49ers staff and two as General Manager for Denver. 

The Super Bowl is inevitably among the most watched shows on television in any given year, and it has become customary for the network showing the game to strategically drop an important broadcast on the schedule immediately afterward. Sometimes they’d try launching new series, but that was never a guarantee: The *A* Team, The Wonder Years, Family Guy and American Dad have all become hits, but the crappy college sitcom Brothers And Sisters and the long-forgotten Aaron Spelling police series MacGruder And Loud didn’t benefit from the spot. 

Nowadays it’s more common for networks to drop a ‘very special episode’ of one of their hit shows after the game. We had a one-hour The Office after the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Arizona Cardinals a few years back, and CBS kicked off Survivor’s all-star season after the Patriots-Panthers game in 2004. This year Fox is airing an episode of The New Girl, which I don’t watch and probably won’t start watching tonight. 

As much as my heart is hoping Peyton Manning will walk away with his second ring tonight, I’m mostly hoping for a good game, and maybe for a few records to fall. Maybe Marshawn Lynch will score four touchdowns, or Peyton will break Steve Young’s record of six touchdown passes. 

No matter what, today is practically a holiday. It is the second-largest day for food consumption in America after Thanksgiving, and while the world as a whole might tune in to the UEFA Champions League Final or this year’s World Cup in greater numbers (that’s soccer stuff to us westerners), our little chunk of the globe will most likely plunk this game at the top of our television ratings for the entirety of 2014. A lot of people will be watching just for the commercials, which are a fantastic show by themselves. Not here of course – Canadian companies have already negotiated deals to have the quality USA commercials blanked out in favor of less-glitzy ads intended for our nation’s people. It stinks, but we have the internet so nothing is ever really ‘blanked out’. 

The last genuine blowout in a Super Bowl was the early 2003 contest between the Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers; every game since has been close through the fourth quarter. I just want a fantastic sixty minutes of football today, hopefully so full of drama and intensity it’ll get me through the sad void of seven football-free months. 

And it’s comforting to know that there’s no way the damn New England Patriots will win it. 

Day 736: Returning To The Frozen Tundra Of Lambeau Field

originally published January 5, 2014

If you’ve been anywhere near the sports pages this week, then you have probably heard all about the weather in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The hometown Packers, the tiny-market, publically-owned NFC North champs are hosting a playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers in wind chills that could smack that wretched point where Fahrenheit and Celsius collide, right around the -40 mark.

Edmonton’s air promises to be just as unforgiving today, and I’m already dreading the sprint from my car to the grocery store; I can’t fathom loping around a sideline for the better part of a 3-hour contest. This is the kind of weather that can scramble cogent thought. Walking through -40 makes one pray for a nearby explosion, just for the heat of the flames. It turns a loogie into a crusty green snotsicle before it hits the pavement.

And so football lovers will turn their pre-game focus to other chilling playoff epics. The mighty Dan Fouts-led San Diego Chargers could have jetted to the Super Bowl in early 1982 were it not for the vicious wind in Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium. The hometown Packers were frozen out by the New York Giants in the 2007 NFC Championship game. But nothing – not even today’s game – will compare to the infamous Ice Bowl.

The 1966 NFL Championship didn’t earn its oft-marked page in the tome of football history for simply being the coldest game ever played. Its significance is spread all over the game like cream cheese on an excessively-dolloped bagel. This was Green Bay’s attempt at an unprecedented third consecutive championship. It would determine who would represent the NFL in the second Super Bowl. And most importantly, it was the last time the NFL championship was considered to be the most important game in the sport of football – Joe Namath’s league-rattling upset the following year would forever cement the Super Bowl at the top of the charts.

It wasn’t enough for the turf at Lambeau Field to be as cold as ice – it actually was ice. A heating-coil system embedded in the soil was supposed to keep the grass soft, but it malfunctioned. Then when the tarp was removed shortly before the players took the field, it left moisture behind, and that moisture turned to solid ice.

That morning, several Green Bay players woke up and found their cars were dead. Dave Robinson, a starting linebacker, had to flag down a fan to catch a lift to the stadium.

The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse put forth the first casualties of the day, as their marching band was scheduled to play pre-game and at the half. The woodwind instruments were rendered useless by the cold, and the brass players’ lips froze to their mouthpieces. A number of band members were brought to a nearby hospital to be treated for hypothermia. The bass drum players were rarin’ to go, but nevertheless the gig was cancelled.

Refs had to make a quick run to a nearby sporting goods store for long underwear, earmuffs and heavier gloves. When head referee Norm Schachter blew his metal whistle after the opening kickoff, he found most of his lips left his face when he pulled the whistle away. The officials had to resort to yells and hand signals for the remainder of the day.

Temperatures hit -48˚F with the wind chill. One elderly spectator literally dropped dead in the stands. This was a tough-ass afternoon.

The game itself was pretty fantastic. Green Bay put up a 14-0 lead early on, but Dallas’s ‘Doomsday Defense’ forced a couple of turnovers and narrowed the gap to 14-10 at the half. Two of the most brilliant football minds in the history of the game were coaching these teams: Tom Landry, the stoic, expressionless master of defense for the Cowboys, and Vince Lombardi, the passionate offensive genius behind the seemingly unstoppable Packers. The coaches knew each other well, having both been a part of the New York Giants’ coaching staff in 1954.

The Cowboys took a 17-14 lead in the fourth quarter, and with 4:50 left to play, Green Bay had the ball. What followed was an incredible drive, bits of which are shown in slow-motion with dramatic horn music in any NFL Films recap of the game. It came down to a third-and-goal play from the 1 yard line with 16 seconds to play. Green Bay had no timeouts. 99% of coaches would either call a quick pass play (since an incomplete pass would stop the clock) or kick the tying field goal and take it to overtime.

Vince Lombardi is not 99% of coaches.

Lombardi told Bart Starr, his quarterback, to run the ball and end the damn game. Starr called for a wedge block. His running back might have had trouble getting traction from the backfield, so Starr kept it himself, dove in and won the championship.

In 1966 (well, technically January of 1967), the Super Bowl was an afterthought. The NFL champ would play the AFL champ, but as the Packers had proved a year earlier (and would prove a week after this game), the NFL still reigned supreme. Not only had the Packers won a third straight championship, but they had made stars out of guard Jerry Kramer and center Ken Bowman, two positions that are not accustomed to the limelight. And when the clock ran down to all-zeroes, the fans at Lambeau decided not to bolt for their cars and the subsequent toastiness of their homes, but instead stormed the field, knocking over players and coaches and tearing down the uprights.

The Packers openly wept with joy after the game. Bart Starr and several other players on both sides were treated for frostbite. Linebacker Ray Nitschke lost his toenails and saw his toes turn purple. Numerous players suffered flu-like symptoms as they tried to recover. Vince Lombardi, whose team had won five championships in seven years as well as the first two Super Bowls, would retire after the Super Bowl II win.

Landry’s Cowboys, shaken to their frosty core by the loss, would find themselves on top of the league four years later. But the Ice Bowl hit them hard.

When reporter Frank Gifford interviewed Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith in the locker room afterwards, the obvious chemistry between the two led to them being paired up with Howard Cosell in 1971 as the first three broadcasters for Monday Night Football. So that was one silver lining that emerged for a Cowboy that day.

Today’s game between the Packers and the 49ers will likely not squeak into the rank of all-time legendary games (though an argument could be made for yesterday’s Kansas City-Indianapolis bout). Unlike the original Ice Bowl, which solidified Lombardi’s place in the league’s history and ensured his name would end up on the game’s most coveted trophy, this is simply a Wild Card weekend battle, with the winner facing a deadly foe next week in Carolina.

But for the players it will be a monument to their spirit, one they can hold over their children for years to come (“It’s too cold to go out and shovel? I had to tackle Frank friggin’ Gore in -40 winds, you lazy shit.”).

I’ll be watching, with a fire in the fireplace, a thick blanket keeping me pinned to the couch, a tasty cup of whiskey-infused coffee at my side. As it should be.

Day 735: Real Winners Come From Harlem

originally published January 4, 2014

When I was eight years old, my dad took me to watch the Harlem Globetrotters play. I don’t remember much of the game (I suspect they won), but I’ll never forget the lesson they taught me about comedy: nothing is too sacred to become fodder for a laugh. Athletes pour their sweat and souls into mastering their craft, they face each game with grit, determination and a professional intensity, yet here are a lanky bunch of goof-offs, mopping the floor with the hapless Washington Generals and having a great time.

One can find a sort of nihilism in this, I suppose. A victory for class-clowndom, or an existential detachment from the rites of traditional consequentialism. To my eight-year-old eyes, it was none of this – it was pure fun.

The Globetrotters exist within a strange bubble of competitive sport: their primary focus is to provide entertainment, but they must also perform with the precision of a perpetually competitive unit. There is no famous equivalent in any other major sport, suggesting that basketball alone lends itself to physical antics and slapstickish showboatery. Or maybe no one feels they can pull it off with the deft sense of showmanship that the Globetrotters exude.

It may surprise you to know that the headquarters for the Harlem Globetrotters is located in Phoenix, Arizona. This is not a case of an owner retiring to a warmer climate; the team has actually never been based out of Harlem. They were launched in 1927 in Hinckley, Illinois, and spent most of their early years centered around the greater Chicago area. So why slap the word ‘Harlem’ in the team’s name?

Simple. It’s exotic.

No, really. The original team was comprised solely of African-American players, and the perceived nexus of black culture in America was Harlem. Team owner Abe Saperstein, a white Jew from London who would later invent the three-point shot, was looking for a sprinkling of mystique for his travelling team. There wasn’t an established professional basketball league, so teams in this era would make their money through ‘barnstorming’ exhibition shows, drawing their crowds for a few hours’ entertainment, but with no real end-game on the table. The Globetrotters wouldn’t even play a ‘home’ game in Harlem until 1968.

In 1940 the group was invited to the World Professional Basketball Tournament in Chicago, which they won. When the NBA showed up in 1946, the age of barnstorming teams was clearly cuing up its closing credits. The Globetrotters began working ball-spinning, juggling, balancing, and skillful shots that had no logical place in a normal game into their act. They became known for their comedy, carving out a niche that borrowed more from the world of entertainment than the world of sport.

In 1959 the team travelled to Moscow for a nine-game exhibition at the request of the Soviet government. The team met with Premier Nikita Khrushchev and received the Athletic Order of Lenin medal. It was a surreal fissure in the Cold War, a sign (however fleeting) that perhaps common ground could be discovered between the two superpowers. The Soviet audience was a tad confused at first – they had expected a high-quality American basketball team, not a group of performers. But comedy is the ultimate diplomat, and the Globetrotters were a hit.

To be a Harlem Globetrotter, a player needs more than a sense of humor. They need to be phenomenal at the sport, which is why the team’s past roster includes NBA legends Wilt Chamberlain, Connie Hawkins, and Nathaniel Clifton, among others. In 1984 the team signed its first female player, L.A. Olympics gold medalist Lynette Woodard. It was a badge of honor to be a Globetrotter. Also, it was a magnificent way to feast upon the delicious spoils of victory, over and over again.

When the team has played competitively, they have done rather well, knocking off teams around the world and college teams in the US. Their record as of 2006 was 22,000 wins and only 345 losses. Impressive? Sure, except that most of those wins came against stooge teams that were set up as foils to the Globetrotters’ antics. When Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s NBA All-Star Team beat the Globetrotters in Vienna in 1995, it was the team’s first loss in 8,829 games, dating back to 1971. Their most frequent foil is the Washington Generals, a team whose destiny should be obvious, given their logo:

The Generals have also gone by the names Boston Shamrocks, New Jersey Reds, Baltimore Rockets and the Atlantic City Seagulls. They are the same team, owned by former NBA point guard Red Klotz, and switching up uniforms to provide the illusion of multiple opponents crushed beneath the mighty Harlem juggernaut. Hey, someone needs to look like chumps when “Sweet Georgia Brown” starts playing through the arena loudspeakers.

That song has to be the most recognizable theme song for any team in the world of sports. The 1925 hit has been covered by Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald and the Beatles, but it’s the Brother Bones whistling, lyric-less version that heralds the Globetrotters’ arrival.

The team has superseded the sport of basketball, nestling deep into pop culture through savvy marketing and excessive saturation of their brand. A 1951 film, a 1954 sequel (starring Sidney Poitier), and a Hanna-Barbera cartoon that ran from 1970 to 1973 all helped cement the Globetrotters in people’s minds as the only team that’ll show up in the entertainment section, not in the sports pages.

Oh yes, there’s more. The Harlem Globetrotters Popcorn Machine was an oddly-titled 1974 live-action variety show. The Super Globetrotters was another cartoon, running (with a laugh track!) for only 13 episodes in 1979. In 1981 the team landed on Gilligan’s Island for an entire TV movie – the final film that reunited most of the original cast. They played a game against the staff on The Love Boat in one episode of that show.

The team has shown up on The Simpsons, 30 Rock, Futurama, Man v. Food, and Family Guy. They continue to tour, and of course they continue to win. Three members of the team even travelled to North Korea on that wacky Dennis Rodman junket.

I don’t think a skillful football, baseball or hockey team could ever match the uniqueness of the Globetrotters’ appeal. They make it seem as though the key to athletic success lies in pure, unrestricted fun. Completely untrue, of course, but for those of us who will never hope to become a professional athlete (and I knew that much when I was eight), it’s a breath of vibrant, comedic air, and a consistently hilarious spectacle.

Just don’t bet against ‘em.

Day 716: Football With A Future – The 1920 Teams

originally published December 16, 2013

As football fans, we can all feel the hot breath of impending playoffs breathing upon our collective neck, as tonight two more teams – the Detroit Lions and Baltimore Ravens – struggle to overcome their mid-season screw-ups for the opportunity to suit up in January. I’ll spare everyone my predictions of the outcome, or my analysis of who I feel has the most favorable outlook for a Super Bowl run, and instead do what I do best: have a look at some history.

The National Football League will be turning 100 at the end of this decade, an event that will no doubt be heralded with throwback uniforms, extensive retrospectives, and yet another season of the Cleveland Browns finishing in the basement.

Mostly, the league will be taking stock of where it has been, and how it has evolved over its first century. I’m going to beat them by seven years.

There were fifteen teams in the 1920 American Professional Football Association (APFA), which was renamed the NFL two years later. Here’s a look at where they all went.

The Muncie Flyers finished at the bottom of the league with an impressive 0-1 record. After being thrashed 45-0 by the Rock Island Independents, they couldn’t get another league game scheduled. After an 0-2 record the following year, the club scooted off to the minor leagues.

The Columbus Panhandles played in the league’s first game, falling to the Dayton Triangles 14-0. The team went 2-6-2 in 1920, and after three unimpressive years they changed their name to the Columbus Tigers. The best they ever finished was eighth, and after unleashing a formidable stink with their sub-par play, the team gave up after the 1926 season.

Technically based out of Hammond, Indiana, the Hammond Pros were somewhat inaccurately named. Most of the players on the team had day jobs, and as such they didn’t have time to work out and train like the athletes elsewhere in the league. They also lacked a home field, so there was never really a fan base to embrace them. So really they weren’t actually ‘Hammond’, nor were they ‘Pros’. They were the most integrated team of the original fifteen though, with six of the league’s African-American players between 1920 and 1926 playing for the Pros, and the team also had Fritz Pollard, the league’s first black coach, on the sidelines. They never won more than two games, and after 1926 the Pros were no more.

Rumor has it that George Halas wanted to move the Decatur Staleys to Chicago, but would have had trouble since the city already had two AFPA teams. He challenged Guil Falcon, coach of the Chicago Tigers, to a Thanksgiving Day winner-take-all game: the losing team folded, while the other represented Chicago in 1921. The Staleys won 6-0, and the Tigers wrapped up operations after the season, the first AFPA team to do so. This is nothing more than a football urban legend, but it makes for a compelling story.

The Cleveland Tigers didn’t fare much better. They finished 2-4-2 in that first season, then changed their name to the Indians to match the city’s Major League Baseball team. They had also signed three Native Americans for the 1921 season, so I guess it all made sense somehow. After 1921, the team suspended operations. There was no money to keep going under any name.

The Detroit Heralds proudly represented Motor City, at least until November when crappy weather caused the team to cancel a bunch of games, finishing with a 2-3-3 record. They renamed themselves the Tigers for the 1921 season, and like every Tigers team in this league so far, they collapsed. Players bitched about not getting paid, and before the season was out, the team was history.

Headed up by football legend Jim Thorpe, the Canton Bulldogs entered the 1920 season as an already-established lucrative franchise. This was one of the teams that had successfully rallied interest in the sport around the country. They snagged NFL championships in 1922 and 1923, but money problems led to a move to Cleveland in 1924, where they won again. The team strutted back to Canton the following year, but after a couple of sorrowful seasons, they were jettisoned into history. Still, the franchise’s few moments of early-league pride were enough to convince the NFL to plop the Pro Football Hall of Fame down inside Canton’s city limits.

Based out of Rochester, New York, the Rochester Jeffersons were another team that wasn’t quite good enough to match forces with the pros. They finished over .500 in 1920, but all their wins were against non-league teams. They actually only ever won two games against AFPA/NFL teams, both in 1921, and suffered four winless seasons between 1922 and 1925. After that, the team was promptly flushed.

The Dayton Triangles: an incredibly stupid name, and a convoluted history:

  • They became the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1930.
  • Changed their name to the Brooklyn Tigers in 1944.
  • Due to wartime player shortages, they merged with the Boston Yanks in 1945.
  • Moved to New York and became the New York Yanks in 1950.
  • The team dissolved in 1951, replaced by the Dallas Texans.
  • The Texans dissolved midway through 1952, replaced by the Baltimore Colts.
  • The Baltimore Colts became the Indianapolis Colts in 1984.

So in a way, the Dayton Triangles kind of still exist, but not really.

The Rock Island Independents finished fifth in the league three times, but never any better. In 1926, when Red Grange started up the American Football League to compete with the NFL, the Independents became the only NFL team to make the leap to the new league. An exciting and daring move, but ultimately a stupid one – the AFL didn’t pay as much, and most of the team’s decent players took off for a better paying gig with an NFL team. The league – and along with it the Rock Island Independents – folded after one season.

Originally known as the Morgan Athletic Club when it was founded in 1898, the Chicago Cardinals finished the 1920 season with a respectable 6-2-1 record, and went on to a long and proud existence, moving to St. Louis in 1960 and then to Arizona in 1988. There are only two charter AFPA teams still in the NFL today, and the Cards are one of them. The bad news is that they haven’t won a championship since 1947.

The Buffalo All-Americans are one of three teams who claim ownership of the 1920 championship title. Under modern NFL rules, where a tie is counted as a half-win, half-loss, the All-Americans and Decatur Staleys would have had the best record in the league. And the team that eventually won – the Akron Pros – never beat either club; both matches ended in a scoreless tie. But the All-Americans were dropped into the third place slot, and that’s where history will keep them. The team changed its name to the Buffalo Bisons in 1924, then the Buffalo Rangers in 1926. They hopped back to Bisons in 1927, but under any name this franchise was simply destined to fail. It folded part-way through the 1929 season.

Founded as a company team for the A.E. Staley food starch company, the Decatur Staleys were run by George Halas. Whether or not the winner-take-all story with the Chicago Tigers was true, the Staleys did move to become the Chicago Bears in 1921, and the franchise has been a fixture in the league ever since. That year, Halas had the brand new Green Bay Packers expelled from the league in order to keep them from signing a key player. Halas then kindly arranged for their re-admittance to the NFL once he and his Bears had scooped that player to their own roster, setting up the longest-running rivalry in the league. Halas remained with the team as player, coach, then owner until his death in 1983.

With a  record of 8-0-3, and despite some kvetching out of Decatur and Buffalo, the Akron Pros have the noble honor of being the first AFPA champions. Perhaps the football gods agreed with Decatur and Buffalo, as they proceeded to smite the Pros with a  few dismal seasons, ending with their ultimate crumpling after the 1926 season.

The Chicago Bears and Arizona Cardinals – the two lone charter teams in the NFL – might be on their way to the post-season this year. They probably won’t play each other, but if they do, I hope the announcers make a mention of this one-time rivalry. If they don’t, I’m sure someone will bring it up in another seven years.

Day 699: Fumbling The F**ked Up – Worst TV Part 6

originally published November 29, 2013

My American readers are no doubt burping through the last of their tryptophan intake from last night, or else slipping on their spiked cleats so they can better trample over their fellow Walmart shoppers in search of the Greatest Deal Ever. My Canadian readers are scowling in their cubicles, wondering why none of our holidays merit a four-day weekend. Either way, it’s a good day to talk about sports.

The NBA and NHL seasons are in full swing, and teams in the National Football League are prepping for the frantic shoving match that will lead twelve teams to the playoffs at the end of next month. NASCAR racers are tuning up their rides and practicing turning left for next year’s season, while baseball players are the fortunate spectators. There’s college sports, an upcoming Olympics and probably something going on in the fencing world. Those fencing bastards are always doing something.

Of course, you won’t see fencing on TV – even during the Olympics you have to be lucky to find a match amongst all the basketball, swimming and beach volleyball on NBC. But what interests me today are not the sports we’ll be gazing vacantly at this weekend, but the atrocities in televised sport that have befallen our culture in the past. I’ll start with the most offensive.

Hockey has always been the neglected child in American televised sport. Practically a religion in Canada, it has taken years for the sport to spread its infectiousness into some of the warmer-climate markets in the U.S. The Fox Network, which in the mid-90s was dealing with its own struggles for legitimacy, picked up a contract to air a number of NHL games. After doing some market research (presumably among the unrepentantly insane), they sliced open the puck and stuck a circuit board inside. Now people could see the puck glow on TV, with CGI blue streaks appearing when the puck was passed, red for a mighty shot.

Newcomers to the sport appreciated the enhancement. But for those who had been watching hockey for years – which is practically every sentient being in Canada, including dust mites – it was an abomination. A black puck on white ice really isn’t that hard to follow. Fox’s NHL ratings dipped after the FoxTrax Puck was introduced during the 1996 All-Star Game, and by the end of the 1998 finals they dropped the sport from their broadcast lineup.

Hockey on American prime-time wouldn’t see their ratings climb back from this fiasco until 2008 when the Winter Classic debuted.

WWE head honcho Vince McMahon had a great idea. What if there was a football league that tweaked the rules, creating a faster, harder-hitting, more violent game? It was a merger of wrestling and football – how could it lose? Welcome to the XFL.

NBC was equally to blame for this mess as part owners – and the league was truly owned from on high. All teams were run as branches of the same corporation, not by individual owners. There were no fair-catches on punted balls, all stadiums required actual grass, and defenders could bump receivers any time before the quarterback threw the ball. It might have been interesting if it wasn’t so awful.

The problem was, the really good players were making real money in the NFL. Also, there was extremely limited fan support, possibly because many of the cities involved already had pro teams. Other media outlets hesitated to report on the games, feeling it was more a WWE-type show than an actual competitive league. Both the WWE and NBC lost $35 million each in one season. They didn’t come back for seconds.

In 1994, ABC and NBC joined forces to launch The Baseball Network. Specialty cable stations have since blown their broadcasting wad all over the channel spectrum, but back then it was harder to launch a fresh channel. The Baseball Network wasn’t technically a channel though; they produced their own games, which were then broadcast on ABC and NBC. It was a disaster, and not only because Major League Baseball spent much of the 1994 season locked out due to strike.

Baseball Night In America had a lock of exclusivity over every market, so if they were showing the Yankees game and you, a New Yorker, wanted to see the Mets, you were out of luck. They chose their games to air, and they weren’t always the ones crucial to a pennant race. If your team was playing in a different time zone and the start time didn’t mesh with the broadcast schedule, you wouldn’t see it.

All in all, this may be one of the most ill-conceived business ideas in the history of broadcast television. Luckily the outcry was loud enough that the Baseball Network disappeared after the 1995 season.

NBC lost their NFL broadcast rights in 1998 to CBS. They were desperate for some of that sweet football money, which is what led to the XFL fiasco in 2001. In  2003 they tried again with the Arena Football League, which had been around since 1987. They shifted the season from May to February, hoping to cash in on fans’ initial post-Super-Bowl football withdrawal symptoms. But they focussed mainly on large-market teams, leaving smaller-city clubs like the Grand Rapids Rampage or San Jose Sabercats without any national visibility.

Also, the ratings were crap. After a couple of seasons, NBC stopped promoting the games – it was like they were airing them out of contractual necessity. In 2006, ESPN bought out part of the league and the broadcasts shifted their way. This didn’t help – the league cancelled its 2009 season due to financial hemorrhaging. Either this one wasn’t entirely NBC’s fault or their broadcast strategy was a mortal stab in arena football’s gut.

In 2002, Fox was struck by the wiggly blue lightning of pure inspiration. Celebrity boxing. Who wouldn’t want to see Danny Partridge duke it out with Greg Brady? Whatchoo talkin’ ‘bout, Willis? Are you talkin’ ‘bout punching Vanilla Ice in the face? Well good news, that’ll happen too. How about Paula Jones, the lady who sued Bill Clinton for sexual harassment? Let’s throw her in the ring with Tonya Harding.

If you think this sounds like the worst idea ever, you’d be right. Naturally there was a sequel. Darva Conger, who “won” the ridiculous Fox reality show Who Wants To Marry A Multi-Millionaire, fought against Olga Korbut, a former Belarusian gymnast who had been arrested for shoplifting $19 worth of groceries just four months earlier. Screech from Saved By The Bell fought Arnold Horshack from Welcome Back Kotter. 7-foot-7 basketballer Manute Bol fought William “The Refrigerator” Perry. And for some reason I can’t even fathom, Joey Buttafuoco, the guy who became famous when his 16-year-old girlfriend shot his wife in the head, fought female wrestler Chyna. “Weird Al” Yankovic had turned down that fight, not wanting to box against a woman.

John Wayne Bobbitt (the man famous for having been de-wanged by his wife) was also slated for that fight, but organizers felt that it wasn’t a good idea after Bobbitt was charged with spousal abuse.

Fox not only garnered a massive heap of criticism for these two episodes, but they also demonstrated to the world their extremely flimsy grasp on the definition of the word ‘celebrity’.

That said, if any of these monstrosities is going to stage a comeback, it’ll probably be this one.