Sports as History

This morning I finished Dave Zirin’s really great book of essays What’s My Name, Fool?: Sports and Resistance in the United States. If you’re any kind of a sports fan AND a critical thinker, you will really enjoy it. This is one of the first books I can even think of to take up a whole range of important events, characters and themes from a point of view that finally feels like a real thinking person is behind it. I’ve had glimmers of that once in a while in the past, say from Scott Ostler at the old SF Chronicle, but he slid away from it… even Bruce Jenkins at the Chron seems like a smart guy a lot of the time, but he avoids taking a political stand except in the narrow terms of a given sports controversy. Zirin goes whole hog into racism, homophobia, corruption, drugs, war and peace, free speech and dissent. I’ve seen his essays as they’ve popped up occasionally on Common Dreams, but now I realize he has his own web column. So check it out! You can fill in your own blank spots on why Ali is SO important in our history, the story of the 1968 Olympics (just commemorated by Rigo’s new sculpture at San Jose State), who the outspoken anti-war athletes are now, why we should never support building a new stadium anywhere, and much more.

Reading the book took me back through a lot of my own personal history. I was a huge jock and sports fan as I grew up. I actually had a lot of interesting experiences: I shook Cassius Clay’s hand (before he became Muhammad Ali) when he visited my 3rd grade class in Chicago. I fell in love with soccer when I was about 8 and started organizing all my friends in the apartment building into a team, and convinced some kids on a nearby block to do the same so we’d have someone to play against (this was in Hyde Park around 1966). Later I moved to Oakland in the summer of 1967 and became a huge fan of the Oakland Clippers (leaving behind my beloved Willie Roy and the Chicago Spurs–both teams played in the long-defunct National Professional Soccer League, which became the NASL North American Soccer League), and played youth soccer around the East Bay. I really BELIEVED in soccer, in a way that I later came to believe in socialism or revolution or whatever label I attached to a project of generalized human liberation. It’s odd to recall how strongly I felt those emotions, and how strong the continuity is between the passion, loyalty, love of community, camaraderie, etc. that I felt for my soccer world and later for the political world. I even got to play on the field at the Oakland Coliseum at halftime of an exhibition game between the Oakland Clippers and Santos do Brasil, starring none other than Pele!

I arrived in Oakland the same summer as the Kansas City Athletics moved to Oakland, with a young phenom named Reggie Jackson. In August of 1967 I saw him crash the right field wall catching a ball and turn and throw a laser beam strike to home to double up a runner tagging from third during a game against Frank Howard and the Washington Senators… nothing could have astonished me more at the time. The throw didn’t even bounce! He was known for his bat and his mouth, but as a young player he had a cannon for an arm, too.

I brought my love of the Cubs with me, so some years later when Ken Holtzman, a left-handed starter, came to the A’s I was thrilled. He’d been my hero when I was nine or so. I got to carry his golf bag, along with that of Rollie Fingers, in the fall of 1973, after they’d won two straight World Series… that demystified them a bit, but it was very fun to see them up close and personal. I went to the unbelievable World Series of 1972, the bearded, long-hair Swingin’ A’s against the crewcut militaristic Cincinnati Reds (Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench), which vindicated our politics so clearly when the hippie A’s beat the marine-Reds in 7 games, 3 of them decided by 3-2 scores and six games by one run.

Soccer and baseball and basketball all made up a huge part of my youth. Arriving in the Bay Area at age 10, landing in North Oakland in a largely integrated area but going to an elementary school in which I was one of 2 white boys in the 5th grade class, sports saved me. I had so many great moments on the court at St. Augustine’s on Alcatraz Ave. One time I was doing my typical “Pistol Pete” Maravich imitation and firing up 28 foot shots from the left corner, draining a high pct. in those days, and a much older guy, maybe 17 or so, started teasing me. We were playing one on one and he couldn’t believe that I could play with him with only an impossible perimeter game, but I was beating him until he started talking about my cut-off shorts and the black patches my mom had sewn onto the seat of the pants. Soon I was laughing so hard I was crying and we had to stop playing. He had built a whole saga around me being the fearsome leader of the urban street gang the “Black Patches”… this at a time when the Black Panthers were actually being besieged just a mile away by the Oakland Police…

I have dozens of stories of getting spit on, having my ball, bat or mitt stolen (one time after Bat Day at the Coliseum my friend and I were waiting for his older brother to finish up his vending gig and we got robbed by a roaming gang of kids), finding my way through scary confrontations by melting away at the right moment, or having friends defend me. Being relatively tough in sports, especially on the football offensive line, saved me from a lot of violence… though I got mugged a number of times anyway, but always by people who didn’t know me from school sports.

(Golf saved me at Oakland Tech high school, as I got to drive up to Chabot Golf Course instead of going through the gauntlet of the gym. After my first semester in college, I quit golf in disgust–not with the sport, but with other golfers! It took some more years before the ecological disaster known as a golf course entered my awareness.)

Right from the start of my time in the Bay Area, the voice hereabouts was Bill King. He just died, and it took me about two days to realize how sad that made me. He was always one of those guys that you knew had a lot more going on than just the game in front of him. He was famously an opera buff, a cuisiniere, and something of a Renaissance guy… reading Zirin’s book I wished he’d interviewed Bill King. I’m sure King was a lefty of some sort. How many games did he put me in the middle of with his blazing descriptions, his nuanced feel for the rhythm of the game? I loved his calls of the Warriors basketball games the best (especially during that unbelievable 1975 championship season). He was great as a Raiders’ announcer, sure, but I never much liked football. He was really great as the voice of the A’s for the last 20-some years, especially when he was teamed with Lon Simmons. I have a couple of cassette tapes laying around of those two broadcasting a long, lazy midsummer doubleheader in the late 1980s… I’ll have to pull it out and play it to myself after writing this. I don’t think there will ever be any team as smooth and funny and human as those guys were.

So I could go on and on… I guess when I’m an old guy if someone wants old sports stories from the last part of the 20th century, they oughta come find me.

The World Series just came and went. I was very happy to have my first home team, the White Sox, get in and win it. I only wish that the Series had gone 6 or 7 games. Each of the four games was so tight, so close, really great baseball. Houston (ugh, Texas!) deserved to win a couple of games at least, and it would have done justice to a great match-up. But a sweep was in the cards and a sweep it was. The last half inning, with two awesome plays by shortstop Juan Uribe, first diving into the stands in foul territory to grab a foul out and then beating the runner by a quarter step on the dribbler up the middle, really underlined how much the White Sox deserved to win. And it was sweet to see two teams that haven’t been in the Series before, or at least not for my whole lifetime in the case of the Sox (I remember the days of Al Lopez as manager, Ron Hansen as shortstop, old Comisky Park, where the lingering memory of the 1959 World Series was all folks had to feel good about, since the Sox were perennially a few games back of the Yankees, when it was just the American League. When divisions came in in 1969, inexplicably the White Sox were in the West with the A’s and KC Royals and of course they never had a chance…)

Most of the women in my life have always thought I’m crazy for loving sports. My politically minded friends, too. But some get it. I have two friends who are both baseball nuts, hardcore anarchists, and classical music specialists… what are the odds against that? But it is an ongoing paradox how well Americans can hold history in their minds when it comes to games and how poorly they can do it when it comes to “real life.” Amnesia is a social disease, and apparently one that sports can neutralize among a fairly large portion of the population…

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